The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) Division of Sport Fish recently announced king salmon fishing regulations for the region that may have a significant impact on the Skagway fishing community. Floating beneath the surface of those orders, however, are the issues of poor king salmon runs in recent years and other unknown factors affecting the species’ representation in local waters.
Per ADF&G orders, the waters of the Chilkat Inlet north of the ADF&G regulatory marker immediately north of Seduction Point are closed to king salmon sport fishing from April 15 through July 15.
Additionally, in the waters of Lynn Canal north of the latitude of Sherman Rock, the retention of king salmon is prohibited. King salmon may not be retained or possessed, and any king salmon caught must be released immediately and returned to the water unharmed from April 15 through Dec. 31.
According to a release from the ADF&G, the 2017 projected Chilkat River run is 600 large king salmon. This is under the low-end of the goal range, which is 1,850-3,600 large fish.
The projected figures are based on the numbers and ages of Chilkat River king salmon sampled in the spawning escapement and marine harvest, as well as sibling survival rates, observed in the past five years.
The release states that commercial fisheries in Lynn Canal and subsistence fisheries in Chilkat Inlet and in the Chilkat River will also be limited in time and area during 2017 to increase king salmon escapement.
The Chilkat is not the only river experiencing productivity problems, according to Richard Chapell, Haines/Skagway area marine biologist with ADF&G. Chapell said the department is having problems with king salmon runs throughout Southeast Alaska.
“It seems like the problem is in marine production, just the ocean environment isn’t as productive for king salmon as it was say five or 10 years ago,” Chapell said.
Chilkat king salmon stock, somewhat uniquely according to Chapell, rear in the inside waters of northern Southeast Alaska, meaning the fish aren’t present only in May and June when they return to their home streams to spawn.
Chilkat stock will spend anywhere from one to four years in saltwater growing to full size.
“Every year there is usually an August feeder run of these immature king salmon that come up into Taiya Inlet right here [in] Skagway, which has in the past made for very productive king salmon fishing in August,” Chapell said. “So those are not spawners that year, but those are fish that have reached some catchable size, but they won’t spawn until the following year. So we’re continuing this area-wide closure in Haines and Skagway area all the way through the end of the year to protect the feeders, the immature fish that are rearing in these waters.”
The Haines/Skagway regulations are not as absolute as those levied in waters around Juneau, which completely prohibits all king salmon fishing and retention from April 15-June 14, however several Skagway charter fishing companies are still predicting an impact upon their businesses.
“I’m going to probably reduce by 50 percent this year, and this will probably be my last year fishing in Skagway as a charter guy, simply because it’s no fun fishing if you’re not catching fish,” said Joe Warchuck, who runs Fat Salmon Charters.
Ken Gross of Never Monday Charters said people vying for Alaska fishing tours expect to be able to keep what they catch. Typically, when a customer catches a fish, it is sent down to Juneau, processed and shipped to the customer’s home.
“That’s been an ongoing thing forever in Alaska,” Gross said. “So people expect that.”
As a workaround, Gross said he is trying to work with a processor in Haines to sell his customers a box of commercially caught sockeye salmon for the same price of processing a king salmon. While the commercial fishermen may be impacted first, Warchuck said the effects will ripple outward into the community.
“You’re going to see more and more people migrating to Haines, more and more people migrating to areas they can actually fish, and that’s a lot of hotel rooms, that’s a lot of dinners at the Starfire or Fish Co., that’s a lot of revenue,” Warchuck said.
Port Commission member John Tronrud said it may be beneficial for the municipality’s port consultant Moffatt & Nichol to look at the situation as part of studying the impact of the cruise ships on the economy, as well as how much money the different tours provide to the community.
“You lose a ship, how much money do you lose?” Tronrud said. “You lose a tour, what does that do?”
Chapell agreed that the regulations would reduce the harvest of charter and sport anglers; he also said that was the intent.
“You need to reduce the human harvest of the Chilkat stock, because the ocean isn’t producing enough of them,” Chapell said. “We have a very real biological concern about the sustainability of the Chilkat king run. We are pulling out all the stops this year to conserve Chilkat kings, so it’s not just fisheries in Haines and Skagway that are being restricted.
“The situation is pretty dire.”
Chapell said about five to 10 percent of juvenile Chilkat king salmon are marked before they leave the river. Wherever large numbers of king salmon are caught, the department uses these marks to trace the fish back to its home stream.
The main fisheries where they are harvested, according to this method of marking, are the Haines sport fishery, the Skagway sport fishery, the District 15 commercial gillnet fishery and the troll fishery down in the Icy Straits area.
“All those fisheries are going to be restricted this year,” Chapell said.
He said ADF&G is taking more extreme conservation measures than ever before to help make escapement goals.
“It’s not just Skagway anglers that are being targeted,” Chapell said. “We’re taking conservations measures on all the fisheries in Southeast Alaska.”
By reducing the harvest of king salmon in marine environments, Chapell said ADF&G is hopeful to get decent escapement and “get the Chilkat king run back on its feet.”
“Most of this production problem is just due to ocean conditions, and we don’t have a magic powder we can sprinkle on the ocean to make it more productive,” Chapell said. “So we don’t know when this is going to turn around.”
Warchuck said that enforcing certain practices, such as barbless hooks and knotless nets which help increase fish survival, could have helped the situation.
“It just seems foolish to me that we go from fishing them [king salmon] to nothing, with no attempt to increase survival,” Warchuck said. “That just blows my mind.”
Gross said a lot of immature king salmon are caught in the area. Any measuring less than 28 inches need to be thrown back. Having a mandate of barbless hooks could help keep immature salmon, even those thrown back into the water, from dying.
“I have been begging them to do barbless hooks,” Gross said. “Because once you do barbless hooks, when you catch and release them, [you have a] very, very rare mortality rate. You hardly ever have a fish die.”
This is not the first inkling of fishing-related trouble for area. In 2015, the ADF&G announced the Pullen Creek run project would close due to diminishing funds and irregular broodstock.
Tronrud, who’s been fishing the Skagway waters for over four decades, said stock for king salmon has been going down for years. The situation is tricky, Tronrud said, because it is hard to know exactly what is hurting the king salmon numbers; whether predators, overfishing, ocean temperature or something else is contributing to the low count of the fish. Without some manner of artificial help, Tronrud said a lot of the salmon stocks are going to be in trouble long-term.
“I think it’s going to get worse, not better,” Tronrud said.