King salmon fisheries in major Alaska watersheds have been declared failures by the U.S. Department of Commerce, making commercial fishermen eligible for disaster relief.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank announced the disaster declaration Thursday for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, flowing into the Bering Sea, and for Cook Inlet, including the Kenai River.
"Some Cook Inlet salmon fisheries have experienced revenue losses of up to 90 percent of their historical average during the 2012 season, seriously hurting local economies that are dependent on fishing," Blank said in her announcement.
The Yukon River is North America's third-longest river. Villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim depend on king salmon, also known as chinooks, for both commercial sales and subsistence needs, Blank said.
King salmon are the largest of the five Pacific salmon that thrive in Alaska waters. They hatch in freshwater streams, live a year in rivers and spend three to seven years in the ocean before returning to streams to breed and die. Some spawning Yukon River kings swim more than 2,000 miles over two months, across the width of Alaska, to reach headwaters in Canada, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Gov. Sean Parnell requested disaster declarations over the summer after weak returns that had state fisheries managers closing seasons and limiting sport, commercial and subsistence fishing. In some cases, managers halted the catch of sockeye or other species so that enough kings could escape upstream.The Kenai River's eastside commercial setnet fishermen lost nearly 90 percent of their normal annual income when that fishery was restricted and closed, according to Parnell. Setnets are nets anchored to the beach and run perpendicular to shore.
State Commerce Department officials estimate a commercial fishing loss of $2 million to $3.7 million, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said.
"This does not include impacts to guides, sport and recreational anglers, which impacts charters, gear shops, RV parks, restaurants," she said by email. It also does not account for the significant household income value of the subsistence catch, she said.
The reason for the poor returns remains unknown but researchers continue to suspect ocean factors, said Robert Clark, the state's chief sport fish scientist.
"If you look at what's been going on lately, since about 2006, run strength around the state, they all seemed to have peaked at about the same time in '06 and pretty much all the stocks that we have monitoring for declined," he said.
The department has not seen similar conditions since the early 1970s, he said. Generally, king salmon returns to home rivers and streams vary, with some doing well and others not in any given year.
"This time around it looks like there's a real statewide downturn and that leads you to the idea that it's probably something in the early marine environment or something in the marine environment itself," Clark said.
Clark and his counterpart for commercial fisheries, Eric Volk, head a team formed by Parnell to look at declining king runs. The team is drafting an analysis that will be discussed at a symposium next month in Anchorage and will eventually generate a research plan.