Something in the ocean has been death to Alaska's king salmon.
The state's iconic fish, treasured for food, sport and cash, should now be swimming in droves up rivers from the Southeast rain forests to the populated Railbelt and the Western Alaska tundra.
But they're not.
To preserve future runs, state officials are clamping down throughout Alaska, banning even catch-and-release fishing of returning kings in Southcentral and halting subsistence king fishing on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. They're still reviewing whether to restrict the commercial setnetters in Cook Inlet who target sockeyes but can't help taking kings as well.
"We're in a period of low abundance and low returns, statewide, and whether it's from Southeast, Copper River, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Nushagak, Yukon, we're just in this period of low productivity in the ocean," said Ricky Gease, a biologist and director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
After leaving their home rivers as half-ounce smolt, most kings spend three to four years in the ocean, though the range is wide: as little as one year for kings that return as shrimpy jacks, or seven years for monsters. That's a lot of time for something to go wrong.
Biologist Tom Vania, the Cook Inlet regional coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the widespread failures of king salmon returns indicate the problem isn't freshwater-based, such as not enough adult spawners in the prior generation, or a loss of eggs from some kind of river catastrophe.
"Freshwater issues tend to be more isolated in a particular drainage," Vania said. Hatchery fish are also missing and biologists know those smolt made it to sea in normal numbers.
Whatever the problem, it's been building for the last five years or so, Vania said.
"Salmon populations are cyclic in nature," he said. "Right now, I have no reason to believe this is not just the bottom end of a cycle and that we won't come out of this cycle -- you see that in all game populations. But there are a lot of changes going on in the ocean environment right now surrounding global warming. Our understanding of what that's going to do to anadromous species we probably won't know for a number of years."
Consultant Ray Beamesderfer of Cramer Fish Sciences in Oregon, an expert in Pacific salmon, said shifts in ocean currents that began in the 1970s generally favored Alaska kings, or chinooks, to the detriment of stocks from California, Oregon and Washington, some of which have been declared endangered.
"We used to all think the ocean was a big homogenous pasture and they all went out there and came back," Beamesderfer said in a phone interview. "But now we know that there's a patchy distribution of resources in the ocean and we know it's an extremely dynamic environment."
If Alaska-based kings are going hungry, the opposite is true of the runs from California and the Columbia River system, which are at their best in years, he said. Sockeyes are also doing well.
"Ocean conditions are the primary driver in the variability in what we're seeing," he said, urging fishermen to remain calm. "The fundamentals of the Alaska salmon system are sound. The habitat is good, the fishing is controlled, there's no problem that's exacerbating these up or down cycles."
When fishermen are not catching fish, they'll often think it has something to do with the fisherman in front of them, whether it's the guy with the bigger dipnet five feet to the right or the huge trawler out in the ocean scraping up fish by the boatload.
There's something to be said of the trawler.
Kevin Delaney, a consultant who headed the state division of sportfishing until 2000, said the historical peak abundance of upper Cook Inlet kings came in the early 1950s before dropping off. That drop coincided with the rise of unregulated foreign fishing outside what was then the nation's three-mile territorial limit.
The Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 ended the pirate fishery by extending the U.S. economic zone to 200 miles.
As a young Fish and Game employee, Delaney would count returning salmon in the Deshka and other upper Cook Inlet rivers.
"In the early years, we would see lower numbers, numbers like we're seeing today -- maybe three to five thousand fish in the Deshka," Delaney said. "But by 1977, it was just amazing on the Deshka. I counted out of a helicopter and, counting 1-2-3-4, saw 25,000, 30,000 fish. It was extremely clear to us that the 200-mile limit on foreign trawl fishing had a tremendous effect on the marine survival of our king salmon. There was no other way to explain it."
The runs remained strong through the early 1990s, he said.
"Times were good -- it couldn't have been any better," he said. "Then it started to drop off, stream by stream." By 2008, the crash was no longer a matter of a creek here or a drainage there -- it was statewide.
It took some years after passage of the Magnuson Act but eventually the foreign trawlers were replaced by U.S. vessels. While the pollock and cod they caught led to economic benefits in Alaska and Washington state instead of Japan, China and Russia, the ships also netted thousands of kings each year in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. As "prohibited species," the kings were thrown back to sea, dead.
According to a report by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the king salmon bycatch gradually increased in the Bering Sea at the same time the numbers were declining in Alaska streams.
"From 1990 through 2001, the Bering Sea chinook salmon bycatch average was 37,819 salmon annually," the December 2009 report said. "Since 2002, chinook salmon bycatch numbers have increased substantially. The average from 2002 to 2007 was 82,311 chinook salmon, with a bycatch peak of 122,000 chinook salmon in 2007." Additional kings were being caught and wasted in the Gulf of Alaska.
Finally, in 2009, the council voted to limit the bycatch, effective 2011 in the Bering Sea. If the quota of 60,000 kings is reached, pollock fishing must cease, said Diana Stram, a planner on the council staff. A similar quota of 25,000 kings took effect this year in the Gulf of Alaska, said council staffer Diana Evans.
State government officials from the governor down have expressed their dislike of the U.S. Endangered Species Act but that law played a significant part in developing the quotas, Evans said. Kings from everywhere mingle with pollock and cod, including those listed as endangered in Washington state and California. The quotas were derived using statistics that estimated the number of kings from endangered runs among the bycatch, and holding that number below the level that would trigger special action under the Endangered Species Act, Evans said.
The council has ordered an aggressive sampling effort of bycatch salmon to use genetics to attempt to determine their streams of origin, she said.
Delaney said the bycatch is playing a role in the current king decline but its full significance is still unknown.
"Whether it's changes in the ocean environment, competitor species, climate change, bycatch in marine fisheries or a combination of all of them, the marine waters is where the hole in this bucket is," Delaney said. "It's not in Alaskans not putting enough fish on the spawning grounds routinely across all of the streams that produce king salmon."
Two other groups catch Cook Inlet king salmon while going after other species -- the drift boat fleet and setnet fisherman that primarily target sockeyes.
Gease, the director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he believes the driftnet fleet could position itself in such a way as to nearly eliminate its bycatch of shore-hugging kings as it targets sockeyes.
"The drift fishery in front of the Kenai and Kasilof is a pretty clean sockeye fishery," Gease said. "Last year, they caught 3.2 million sockeyes and about 500 kings. That's a phenomenal low rate of bycatch."
The same cannot be said for the near-shore setnets, which he hoped would be sharply restricted when the commercial season opens Monday.
"We've been asking the Board of Fisheries, Fish and Game and the east side setnet fishery to try to come up with harvest strategies that would minimize king salmon bycatch, and that would include shallower nets, fishing the tides differently. But they've all been met with, 'We don't need to do that.' Well, now we do need to do that, we need to figure out how to minimize king salmon harvests on the east side setnet fishery," Gease said.
Tracy Lingnau, regional Fish and Game supervisor for commercial fisheries, said he is spending the weekend studying the situation before the opening Monday.
"We're going to be very cautious on how we manage these fisheries but yet we still need to be able to harvest sockeye salmon," Lingnau said. "It's truly going to be a balancing act to try to harvest sockeye salmon that are available, yet try to conserve king salmon."
Whatever happens, anglers, dipnetters and guides won't be the only ones pinched by the lack of king abundance, he said. Commercial fishermen will feel it too.
"No doubt there will be pain," Lingnau said. "There will be pain on all sides by the end of the season."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.