FAIRBANKS -- Bering Sea pollock companies are paying for a study in which scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will try to determine what's behind the decline of Western Alaska king salmon runs.
Many Western Alaska river fishermen have blamed weak runs on the incidental catch by Bering pollock companies, but federal fisheries managers say other factors might also be at work.
The two-year study will be funded with a $435,000 grant from the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center and $180,000 in matching funds from the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund.
The UAF researchers will examine how king salmon grow in fresh water and how growth affects survival to the age of reproduction. Another component will study how infection from the parasite ichthyophonus affects the health of freshwater-run king salmon.
The Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center is part of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and is funded by the Pollock Conservation Cooperative, a group of Bering Sea pollock catcher/processor companies.
"The fishing industry is greatly concerned about recent declines in Western Alaska salmon abundance," said Denis Wiesenburg, dean of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. "As a result, the PCCRC decided to direct significant funding this year to meaningful, focused research into the causes of these declines."
The pollock fleet's king bycatch grew during the early years of the past decade to a high of about 122,000 in 2007 but dropped to 20,500 in 2008 and 12,400 in 2009. Total king catch by commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen in the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Bristol Bay river drainages averaged about 278,000 from 2003-2007.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal board that sets pollock-fishing rules, voted in April 2009 to cap the allowable king bycatch in the Bering Sea at a maximum of 60,000 and create regulatory incentives to reduce king bycatch further.