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Who cares about Alaska salmon? Intentional or not, abuse is too common

Stian Stensland

Around 450,000 people sportfish in Alaska each year, catching about 2.5 million salmon, of which about half are released. A properly released salmon should survive, spawn, and then die -- completing its life cycle and role in the ecosystem. A December article on Alaska Dispatch features a researcher speculating that maybe half of caught and released salmon never spawn -- a number seven to 10 times greater than reported by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. If correct, that has huge consequences for Alaska’s sport fisheries. Correct or not, however, the debate emphasizes anglers’ responsibility to properly handle and release their catch in a way that minimizes harm or stress.

Alaska sportfishing regulations state that molesting of fish is prohibited. Molesting is defined as: “harassing, disturbing, or interfering with fish by any means, including the use of any missile or object not established as legal gear; molesting includes dragging, kicking, throwing, striking, or otherwise abusing a fish which is intended to be released."

Observations. There is no research on how well Alaskan anglers release fish, but riverbank observations give some indications. When I first fished the Kenai River in 1997, keeping snagged sockeye (i.e. fish not hooked in the mouth) was common, despite it being illegal. In contrast, I saw no one this summer keeping a snagged salmon, suggesting that a kind of social norm or self-justice has evolved. Unfortunately, snagging itself is still common, a fact sadly engraved upon me at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose rivers in July last summer.

Sockeye salmon held in large schools in slow moving water there. Hooking them in the mouth in such circumstances is very hard. Testament to that: About 95 percent of the sockeyes coming to shore were snagged and subsequently released. But often released poorly. Fish were dragged onto the sandbar, flopping around, only to be grabbed by the gills, squeezed, and then maybe lifted up to take a picture before release. Or just kicked, shoved or thrown back into the water. This sort of behavior is not confined to the Moose and Kenai rivers. The same lack of respect for the fish goes for keeping live fish on a stringer or the intentional “snag and release” for fun of pinks I saw some teenagers doing in Montana Creek south of Talkeetna.

Rethinking snagging. I don’t know how the caught or snagged and subsequently released sockeyes of the Kenai measure up when it comes to spawning success and mortality. Having good returns year after year seems to be evidence for successful management if you judge by sockeye abundance and biological productivity of the fishery. There is, however, more to successful fishery management than fish production and harvest. Fish and Game has its own brochure about being an ethical angler stating that released fish should be released unharmed.

From an animal welfare perspective one could argue that only unharmed fish (and only those hooked in the mouth) should be released, and whatever else is landed goes on your limit. Why hurt more fish than necessary to get your quota? This “rule”, however, would be considered unethical if tackle appropriate for snagging was allowed as is currently the case. What does deliberate snagging do with our relationship to salmon? Are we forgetting the social conditions of the fishery, and primarily seeing salmon as a commodity that goes into the freezer? Do we see the connection between salmon, people and place? Are we understanding the role of salmon in the ecosystem and respecting the fish and the land the way Alaska Natives have done for ages?

I kill ’em when I take ’em. While fishing the Russian-Kenai confluence this summer, I noticed some of the salmon on a stringer down below me were still alive and swimming. I asked the guy nearest the fish if those were his and suggested he should kill them properly to avoid unnecessary suffering. “I’ll kill ’em when I take ’em” was the reply I got. Evidently this was not my business. I don’t know if his intentions were to exchange these fish for bigger ones if he caught more, or if he thought the meat quality would be better if the fish was kept alive another hour or two. In fact, a fighting fish kept on a stringer produces waste products that deteriorate meat quality.

Why cruelty to fish? Are anglers ignorant to proper handling and release techniques or do they simply not care? “The fish is going to die anyway,” some ignorant anglers argue. Yes, indeed each and every Pacific salmon dies after spawning, but if bruised and injured they might die before spawning, or have reduced reproductive success if they do manage to spawn. Others, again, might not know how best to treat a released fish. A guide I talked to shared my views on improper release, but added that it had gotten better over the years. Hopefully that means a norm for proper release and angler ethics is emerging in Alaska.

Release. In anglers’ defense, the information about proper release is not highlighted in the Alaska sportfishing regulations summary booklet. The Bristol Bay regulations have no information about how to release, whereas for Southcentral the booklet only tells them that they should crimp the barb on the hook if they intend to release their catch. For other regions (e.g. Southeast, Arctic-Interior) the information is better, but finding it requires a thorough search of the regulation booklet. The commonly accepted guidelines for catch and release are these:

Minimize the time a fish is played by using a strong line and a knotless, fine-meshed (preferably rubber) landing net. Use pliers to crimp barbs, and remove the hook. Fish caught with (single hooked) flies or lures survive better than fish caught with bait. Do not remove fish from the water. Pumping a tired fish back and forth in the water to help it breathe is no longer recommended as this actually hinders breathing; however, the practice is still mentioned in the regulation booklet. It is best to simply hold the fish up against the current until it recovers and attempts to swim away.

Changing behavior. Fish and Game ought to update its catch and release guidelines. The guidelines should be easy to find in the regulation booklets and include the most current techniques for sound release based on scientific literature. But another take-home message in all of this is that information is not enough to change behavior. Research into human dimensions of fisheries indicates that a mixture of normative messages and regulations (and enforcement) works best in achieving desired behavior. How this can be best achieved in Alaska’s waters is clearly a topic for research and societal debate.

Stian Stensland is a 2013 visiting research scholar to the Resilience and Adaptation Program at University of Alaska Fairbanks and researcher at Norwegian University of Life Sciences. His field is natural resources management and nature-based tourism with a special emphasis on the human dimensions of sport fisheries. He can be reached online through his website.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.