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Bycatch kings upset sport fishermen

Mike Campbell

Some sport fishermen are seething after a report last month showed more than 59,000 king salmon in the Gulf of Alaska were taken by pollock boats and other commercial fishermen this year.

"There's a feeling of frustration among most recreational anglers," said Chris Fiala, owner of Kodiak Island Charters and a Kodiak resident since 1985. "The king salmon is huge because it's our wonder fish. It's our, marlin; it's the fish that really signifies Alaska.

"You can't have too many king salmon. The fact that they're diminishing fast is really frightening to our state."

How many kings is 59,000? Nearly as many kings as returned all last year to the Kenai River, the biggest return in Southcentral Alaska.

Exactly where those fish were headed before trawlers scooped them from the sea is unclear. By law, the dead kings must be thrown back.

That prevents pollock fishermen from profiting from the bycatch. But it also prevents fisheries managers from determining exactly where the fish were headed, something that genetic sampling could help decipher.

"That could open up a huge Pandora's box, if the fish come from, say, the Columbia River or the Sacramento River," said Kodiak commercial fisherman Pete Thompson, referring to two endangered Lower 48 populations.

What is known is that many Alaska king salmon sport fisheries are suffering these days. Among them:

• The early Kenai River run is down 43 percent since 2006.

• The Deshka River return, while on the rebound, is still down 51 percent from a robust 2005 run.

• Both the Karluk (down 61 percent) and Ayakulik (down 80 percent) rivers on Kodiak Island have dropped precipitously and were shuttered to anglers last summer in an effort to rebuild them.

• Alaska's biggest king run, to the Nushagak River in southwest Alaska, cratered last year, down 80 percent in just five years.

Josh Keaton, a fisheries manager with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said 59,000 is the highest bycatch number since monitoring began in 1992. Federal observers work on only about a third of the commercial vessels. Projections are used for boats without observers.

"This is something the (NMFS Management) Council has been looking toward addressing," Keaton said. "The council needs to decide what it's going to do."

The council is an 11-member group, with six members from Alaska, three from Washington, one from Oregon and one federal representative. It has jurisdiction over 900,000 square miles of ocean from 3 to 200 miles off Alaska's shoreline, with responsibility for managing cod, pollock, flatfish, mackeral, sablefish and rockfish species harvested by commercial trawlers, longliners and pot fishermen.

On Dec. 6, the council will meet at the Hilton Anchorage Hotel. Gulf of Alaska king salmon bycatch is on the agenda.

A month later, the state fish board plans to meet in Kodiak.

"I expect that (king salmon bycatch) will get a little bit of air time," said Matt Miller, regional sport fish management biologist for Fish and Game.

"That (59,000) looks like a big number, but you have to look at the bigger picture. One year just taken on its own doesn't necessarily paint a full picture."

From a bycatch of 40,320 Gulf of Alaska kings caught in 2007, the number had declined sharply to 15,299 in 2008 and just 7,714 last year.

Of the 34 commercial pollock boats reporting king salmon to the National Marine Fisheries Service this season, only three -- Sea Storm, Sea Mac and Michelle Renee -- tallied more than 1,000 kings.

The latter had the most, 3,419-- with 2,606 coming on Oct. 9.

Much of this year's bycatch was caught at the end of the season in the western Gulf of Alaska.

"Hopefully," Keaton told the Kodiak Daily Mirror, "it means a lot of kings are out there to be caught, and they ran into a big pack of them."

Kodiak commercial fisherman Oliver Holm said the most effective remedy would be to not fish pollock during the fall.

"Apparently," he said, "kings are mixed in more with the pollock then."

And the pollock fishery is huge, with millions of fish taken in the Gulf of Alaska compared to just tens of thousands of kings during a good year.

Complicating the management challenges is the fact kings appear to roam widely up and down the Pacific Coast.

"They're highly migratory," said Fiala, 60, a member of the Kodiak Fisheries Advisory Committee. "They wander all around the ocean and nobody really knows what their life is like out there."

Most often, juvenile kings are the ones mixed in with pollock.

"They're right out there with pollock, feeding on sand lance. It's really hard to predict where and when they'll show up. It's a crap shoot."

Kevin Delaney, the former director of sport fishing at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who now works for Kenai River Sportfishing, expects a clamor for action as the December meeting approaches.

"I'm convinced there's going to be a loud cry for a thorough assessment of those high-sea catches, and I'd expect some pretty severe restrictions," he said. "Times like this bring out the best in Alaska fisheries management."

Perhaps it's no wonder that concern about kings is growing. Even though king salmon population numbers pale beside pollock, each fish is worth far more.

"I made $1,000 for every king salmon I caught last year," Fiala said. "It's a big lure to visitors, so if I lose that lure, I'm in trouble. I live here, and that money stays in Kodiak."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.