A team of top researchers and scientists is being formed to take a comprehensive look at why king salmon returns to Alaska's rivers are dismal again this summer, Gov. Sean Parnell announced Friday.
Parnell was joined by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell at a news conference to talk about what the state intends to do about the problem of disappearing king salmon.
Parnell said many Alaskans are suffering this summer because of poor runs.
"The resource is so closely connected to our people, we cannot get it wrong," Parnell said.
The governor said he wants the team's report and recommendations by the fall for bringing more king salmon back to the rivers to spawn. So few kings, also called chinook, have been showing up that several major rivers, including the Yukon and Kenai rivers, have been closed to king fishing.
The closures include major rivers in western Alaska where commercial fishermen are sitting idle and people who rely on king salmon and its higher oil content for smoking, salting and freezing for winter are turning to other species of salmon for food.
On the Kenai Peninsula, setnetters are being prevented from fishing, and sport fishing guides are seeing clients cancel trips because there is no opportunity to catch a king. Gone also is the money from summer visitors that ripples through the local economy.
"It is huge," said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, of the impact of the king closures. "This is their livelihood."
Nearly 200 commercial setnet fishermen protested river closures Friday afternoon in Kenai, many questioning the state's management of Cook Inlet fisheries.
The task of the team will be threefold: evaluate king salmon stocks, find possible reasons for the decline and make recommendations to bring the kings back in numbers that will sustain future runs.
Campbell said more resources and money will be put toward finding answers. But, she said, Alaskans should not expect king salmon stocks to suddenly rebound because the state is experiencing a prolonged downturn.
The commissioner said the state already has put several million dollars in additional money toward king salmon research and expects additional money to be allocated.
Campbell said the state is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service on the problem and that collaboration will continue. It is important that the state work with federal agencies to fill in any research gaps, she said, particularly as to what might be occurring in the marine environment where king salmon spend several years before returning to rivers to spawn.
Experts have suggested the decline in kings has to do with changes in the ocean environment, where the federal government has jurisdiction.
"We want to understand what is happening with our fish," Campbell said.
Fishery managers predict that this year's Yukon River king salmon run will be worse than last year, and that was the worst showing for kings in 30 years.
Commercial fishermen on the Yukon and Kuskokwim are turning to less desirable but more plentiful species of salmon that sell for under $1 a pound. King salmon sells for more than $5 a pound. With gas costing $6.70 a gallon in Bethel, many fishing boats are sitting idle, he said.
People living in the region's 56 villages are devastated, Andrew said.
"It is an incredibly stressful time," said Timothy Andrew, director of natural resources with the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel.