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Alaska's Deshka River closure: Politics or conservation?

Craig Medred
Courtesy: Set the Hook Charters

A little more than a week ago, the Deshka River -- the most popular king salmon stream in Alaska's sprawling Matanuska-Susitna Valley -- closed to fishing for fear too few of the big fish would survive to spawn. Since then, the river has seen a surge in kings, and by the time you read this, should be at or near its spawning goal.

Almost 12,300 of the fish had passed through a fish-counting weir on the river 60 miles northwest of Anchorage as of Monday, and they were pouring upstream past the site at the rate of 500 to 600 per day. The minimum spawning goal is 13,000.

And yet, the fishery on the Deshka remains closed.

Why is unclear. Area fisheries biologist Sam Ivey said state fisheries biologists have discussed reopening it, but he doesn't expect that to happen. Some of the fish early in the run appeared small, and because of that biologists are thinking maybe more fish should be put on the spawning beds to guarantee an adequate number of eggs, he said.

"We've got a weak run we're dealing with," Ivey said. "We're evaluating it … You don't want to manage for just the low end of the goal."

No, agreed Andy Couch, a valley fishing guide and a former state Fish and Game employee, you don't want to manage for the low end of the goal. Commercial fishery managers who have tried to do that in the 49th state have, he noted, often ended up altogether missing the goal.

But the situation on the Deshka, Couch noted, is not about managing to the lower end of the goal; it's more about recognizing the goal.

There is no one familiar with the river's salmon run who at this point doubts the Deshka will reach what biologists call its "escapement goal" of 13,000 fish. Ivey said Tuesday that he could project that number. The data backs up that conclusion. Even in a disastrous year like 2008 -- when only 7,533 kings made it back to the Deshka -- more than 700 passed the weir between July 2 and the end of the run.

There is no reason to believe reopening fishing the Deshka downstream from the weir would at this point threaten the minimum escapement.

Why then, Couch wonders, is the fishery closed. He was busy Tuesday afternoon writing up a petition to Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell asking she order the fishery reopened until the traditional end of the season on July 13. There is, he said, no justification for keeping a fishery closed when the minimum escapement has been projected, and no one familiar with Alaska salmon fisheries could recall a time the state has done this on any other river.

Normally, so long as biologists can project escapements will be met, Alaska fishermen get to fish -- be they anglers, commercial netters or subsistence users.

"This just seems totally out of the normal way of doing things," Couch said, and it's not because of some concern about the quality of data, an issue that has arisen on the Kenai, Yukon and other rivers where sonar are used to count fish. The sonar have sometimes proven less than accurate. Not so the data from a good, old-fashioned weir where people visually count the number of fish going upstream.

"This is the best data they have," said Couch, who suspects the true story here is that the Deshka "is caught up in the king salmon politics throughout the state."

Fear and consequences

Kings have come back weakly almost everywhere this season, causing plenty of political problems. Subsistence fishermen on the lower Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska went outlaw when the state closed the king fishery near Bethel to protect a weak run.

Commercial fishermen from the Kenai Peninsula stormed the local offices of Fish and Game to protest after the weak return of kings to the Kenai River forced the closure of Cook Inlet fisheries that target sockeye salmon but kill a few kings as by-catch.

Those fisheries are now history, and a lot of people remain angry about it. Some in Fish and Game might fear the political fallout if subsistence and commercial fishermen decide anglers are getting special treatment on the Deshka with the reopening of the king fishery there.

Ivey dismissed this idea, but did allow that environmental concerns about what is happening to Alaska kings at sea are playing a part in the decision-making. He is worried the return rate on the Deshka could fall from the hundreds of fish per day at the start of this week to almost nothing tomorrow, though there is no real precedent for that. There is, however, the fear.

Biologists are now in general agreement that Alaska kings don't seem to be doing as well in the ocean as in the past.

About the same number of young fish are heading to sea every year, they say, but not as many are surviving and growing to return as adults. Nobody knows why.

"We have that consideration," Ivey said. On top of that, he added, some of the fish that came back to the Deshka this year appear small and look to be kings that have spent only two years in the ocean. Kings can sexually mature after only two years at sea, but little fish by the mere factor of their size don't carry as many eggs to seed the spawning grounds as big fish do.

"We're just looking at this conservatively," Ivey said. "This year may be a little more different than other years. We may make the escapement goal, which is a good thing, but it's still weaker than the last couple years."

That is true. The 2011 return was 19,026 kings; The 2010 return was 18,594.

Couch isn't quite buying this as good argument for keeping the fishery closed, however.

"Certainly they're going be on the low end of the range," he said, but the reason the state goes to a lot of time and trouble to try to scientifically determine the minimum escapement goal is so that runs can be managed both for conservation and for economic benefit.

Minimum escapement, maximum caution

The whole idea of establishing a minimum escapement goal is to maximize economic and recreational opportunities. The state could, as an alternative, simply ban fishing and get as many king salmon as possible into every river.

Long an advocate for fisheries conservation, Couch admits he has twin goals here: He wants to see healthy runs of kings in the Deshka now and into the future, but he also wants to protect his business as a fishing guide.

"I enjoy my job," he said. "I've been in business almost 30 years. I can't really remember having a closure that totally shut me down."

That's because, in the past, Fish and Game let fishermen fish unless biologists feared a minimum escapement goal would not be met. For most of those 30 years, that meant that even when the agency closed a fishery in one place because of fears of inadequate escapement, Couch could go fish elsewhere until and if biologists decided there was a problem there, as well.

This year, in the vast Susitna Valley at least, it hasn't worked that way.

"The Talkeetna (area king) fishery was barely getting started when they closed it," Couch said.

Biologists really had no clue as to run strength. They were merely reacting to weak runs elsewhere. And now, on the Deshka, when biologists know they have minimum but adequate escapement, they are still reacting to weak runs elsewhere.

"With the marine conditions out there now," Ivey said, maybe adding some additional freshwater production would help, though there is no scientific evidence to support that idea. Adding more freshwater production by putting more Deshka kings on the spawning beds might do the opposite as well. If the problem is near-shore marine survival, for instance, sending more young fish to sea to compete for a limited amount of food could lower the survival odds for all of them.

Rather than stumbling ahead into new territory in this way, Couch said he'd rather see the department proceed in the old way: Make sure minimum escapement goals are met in all fisheries; provide people the maximum opportunity to fish; and if there are doubts about the adequacy of minimum escapement goals do the necessary research to come up with scientifically justifiable new goals.

"I can't even begin to understand why the department would go where they're seemingly wanting to go now," he said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com