Just south of Sherman Rock in Juneau, king salmon fishing is open and has been since June 15.

Although they are now open for retention in Juneau, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Division of Sport Fish orders that king salmon still to be returned to the waters immediately after being caught in Skagway.

As it was announced previously, retention of king salmon is closed to the entire Subdistrict 15-A, including Skagway, Haines and the waters of the Chilkat Inlet – everything north of Sherman Rock. This catch and release regulation will be in effect through December 31.

“Our concern is about the Chilkat River king salmon stock,” said Richard Chapell, area management biologist in the Haines/Skagway area with ADF&G. Chapell said that the Juneau area king salmon fishing was closed completely until June 14, so that all of the returning mature king salmon could make it up the Taku River.

“But with the Chilkat fish, we have more of a year-round concern, for protecting not only this year’s spawners, but next year’s spawners, which are vulnerable to being caught in upper Lynn Canal,” Chapell said.

The Chilkat River large king salmon run forecast for this year – which was under 600 – is the lowest seen since ADF&G started tracking the fish with mark-recapture in 1991. The ideal range is 1,850-3,600 fish.

“The previous smallest run we saw was 2016, which was only like 1,350 kings,” Chapell said. “So we were looking at a, pretty much, a disastrous king salmon run up the Chilkat this year.”

While this regulation has affected local recreational fishermen and charter fishermen alike, the two have different opinions on the restrictions.

“If Fish and Game is going to restrict the fisheries because these kings are in such dire conditions, then the regulations should reflect that emergency,” said Andrew Cremata, Skagway fisherman and self-employed writer.

Cremata explained that he thinks many of the fish caught by charter boats are improperly handled before being released and end up dying as a result. He said he often sees the charters’ marketing photos of tourists holding king salmon with hands in their gills, or even holding “shaker” kings, which are immature fish typically under two years old.

“Those fish are the ones that are going to be coming back in a few years,” Cremata said. “You bring them on the boat, so that a tourist can hold it with blood pouring out of its gills and all the scales flaking off of it – that fish is dead. You may as well throw it in the cooler.”

Although ADF&G does recommend the fishermen release the fish while they’re still in the water, Cremata thinks they should make a rule that they cannot be brought into the boat. Barbless hooks are not required in the area, but Cremata thinks they’re only worthwhile if the fish are being released while they’re still in the water. Matt O’Boyle, harbormaster of the Skagway Small Boat Harbor, argues that barbless hooks would allow for people to easily release fish in the water if they knew they weren’t of legal size.

“There’s been the idea of having barbless hooks,” O’Boyle said. “If that regulation was in place it would make it harder for people to get salmon into the boat.”

Ken Gross, owner of Never Monday Charters, has been using barbless hooks for years.

Gross said he has seen the brochure from ADF&G recommending that they release the fish in the water, but argues that people pay $1,300 to come fishing, so if he’s careful and uses a barbless hook, he’s going to bring the fish aboard.

“No one has ever told us if that’s the law or not, but, you know, I let them get a picture for the $1,300, we release them and they swim off and they’re just fine,” Gross said.

According to Gross, charter fishermen like himself would be out of business if ADF&G had restricted king salmon fishing completely in the area. Gross thought he was going to be out of business this year, before ADF&G decided to allow catch and release fishing instead of closing it completely. Instead, he’s just been losing some business to Juneau, where clients can keep and send their fish back home.

“We’re 40 miles past the river they’re worried about,” Gross said, who doesn’t think the regulations will make a difference.

ADF&G tracks the Chilkat king salmon run by using fish wheels and mark-recapture around Mile Nine on the Haines Highway.

The fish are marked there with tags, and then recaptured in August at the spawning ground to determine what percentage of the population was marked. Chapell said so far it seems like the run is on-track to meet ADF&G’s forecast.

Since Skagway lost their last fish hatchery program, the latest one ran by Douglas Island Pink & Chum (DIPAC) who reared king salmon, the salmon runs have been decreasing, and opinions differ on why this could be happening.     

John Tronrud, member of Skagway’s Fish Hatchery Board and a local fisherman, thinks the cruise ships and charter boats who take tourists fishing have affected the runs the most.

“They’re putting out six lines, three times a day – the impact is so much greater on this small area, you know, that I think them out there fishing has impacted this small area as much as anything,” said Tronrud.

Gross, however, thinks the issue stems from an area much further than Skagway. Right outside of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is Icy Strait and Cross Sound, where fish come in from the open ocean. Gross believes that this is where the problem occurs.

According to Gross, up until 10 years ago, fishing was closed through the year in those areas until July 1. Now, he says, they are open three days a week and fishermen are catching hundreds of king salmon that would be making their way up to the northern Lynn Canal otherwise. Regardless of what is causing the low runs, fishermen in the upper Lynn Canal would like to see enhancement projects brought to the Haines/Skagway area.

Skagway’s Fish Hatchery Board was formed in 2015 to address the issues of low king salmon runs and to try and figure out how to bring fish enhancement projects to the community. The board includes O’Boyle, Tronrud and Nicole Kovacs from the Taiya Inlet Watershed Council and Skagway Traditional Council.

O’Boyle thinks that Skagway has a lot of potential for a chinook or coho salmon enhancement, and he’d like to see more funding put into protecting Alaska’s natural resources.

“There was not a good, natural salmon run here, so the hatchery was the kind of key to having salmon fishing in town here,” O’Boyle said.

At the most recent Fish Hatchery Board meeting, Donald Churchill, commercial fisherman and gill netter from Haines, came to propose his idea of bringing a third aquaculture association to the Haines/Skagway area.

Although the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) includes both Haines and Skagway in the areas that it’s supposed to cover, Churchill believes it only focuses on Sitka, where their headquarters are.

“The only place that NSRAA does projects is in Sitka on Baranof Island, and they’re supposed to be a regional aquaculture association, but they’re not,” Churchill said. “They take money – three percent of my gross annual income goes to NSRAA in a three percent tax as does every salmon fisherman who fishes on the north end.”

Churchill said that although the northern end has DIPAC, he argues that it’s a private, non-profit hatchery and their three percent doesn’t go to them. He’d like to start a third aquaculture association that can fund more hatcheries in the upper Lynn Canal.

“By putting another hatchery up here we would have access to be able to move fish to various locations in remote release sites, preferably a bay with no wild stock, and enhance this upper area because we’re not getting any enhancement from our current regional aquaculture association,” Churchill said.

During the meeting Churchill encouraged the Skagway Fish Hatchery Board to have the municipality send a letter to NSRAA regarding this proposal. O’Boyle, chairman of the board, said he would just like folks to know that Skagway is open to bringing salmon enhancement projects to the community.

“There might be some confusion out there to where Skagway stands with wanting salmon, and personally, I would like to show or tell anybody that ‘hey, we’re working on this,’ and any help that any of these already established companies can help us with would be a benefit to the whole community,” O’Boyle said.