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Much remains beyond state's control when managing Alaska king salmon

Craig Medred
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries

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The proverbial, evil white man has done much to alter, rearrange and generally muck up the ecosystem of the North American continent. About this, there can be no argument. But he is not responsible for all things. Mother Nature herownself is not perfect. She can be, to use a most impolite term, a fickle bitch.

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Alaskans today appear hostage to her vagaries.

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Almost everywhere in the 49th state, the chinook salmon -- the big fish, the king -- failed to return this summer. Or, suffice to say, they failed to return in numbers that would allow for humans to kill hundreds of thousands of them. They came back all right, but biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game banned a lot of people from fishing in a lot of places to protect the spawning stock in the hope that future years will be better.

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Those biologists, who were backed in all cases by colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a constitutional responsibility to protect the fish of the 49th state. The Alaska Constitution says "fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained-yield principle...."

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Thus the scientists, at least at the state level, are legally required to ensure that so-called "escapements -- the number of fish escaping the nets and hooks of fishermen to spawn -- are adequate to sustain future runs. But there's more to it than that. The scientists are true believers. They have studied their history, and they have seen what happens when weak runs are not protected.

Pity the Atlantic salmon

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Atlantic salmon once numbered in the millions. They were chronically overfished on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The runs crashed. Given rivers empty of fish, dams were built. Habitat was turned to other uses, many of which were not good for the salmon. The wild salmon all but disappeared. Today most Atlantic salmon live their lives in pens like cattle in order to produce food for people.

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Efforts to restore them to historic streams have struggled and failed, even where dams have been removed and habitat restored. Forty-five years and at least $200 million were spent trying to restore the fish to just one East Coast river -- the Connecticut. The effort was eventually abandoned as futile. Aware of this sad history, fisheries scientists in Alaska have stood firm against more than a few angry mobs in this state over the years to protect escapements. More than a few of those biologists have had their lives threatened because people don't fully understand what is at stake.

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It is all too easy to put the human needs of the moment above the future needs of the fish. Alaska saw a demonstration of this at the recent Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. As Sam Jackson, a heavy equipment operator for Aniak on the Kuskokwim River, told a panel there, he wasn't trying wipe out the fish or become an outlaw when he went fishing in violation of closures this summer.

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"I went down to exercise my God-given right this summer," he told Dispatch reporter Jill Burke. Where the media had characterized the "fish-in" as a type of civil protest, she reported, it wasn't. As Jackson pointed out, "I was exercising my traditional rights to survive and to fish. I had to put food on the table somehow."

One has to feel for Jackson and hundreds like him. This state is full of people largely or significantly dependent on salmon as a major source of food. Everyone wants fish -- subsistence setnetters like Jackson on the Kuskokwim River, commercial setnetters like Paul Shadura financially crippled by king-salmon related closures this year, personal-use dipnetters like Mike Leiker of Anchorage who'd like to add the tastiest of Alaska salmon to his freezer, not to mention all the tourism businesses dependent on fish, or all the anglers who have a lifelong dream of just catching one, or the offshore commercial fishermen dependent on the fish for their livelihoods.

Many an Alaskan -- maybe most -- has skin in this game, and sadly there are those willing to take advantage of that for political reasons.

Destroying Native culture?

"After 20 years, Alaska Natives continue to struggle for their aboriginal hunting and fishing rights and their right to manage their lands," John "Sky" Starkey, a white attorney from Bethel said during the AFN convention in a distorted effort to portray what happened on the Kusko this year as part of a broad effort  to destroy the Alaska Native culture. Starkey is an activist. Preying on the differences between Alaskans is his business.

"This was their country first,'' he said. "You don't just walk in and rip something away from people and say we are all equal.”

Starkey, like some others, likes to cite the date showing that 98.3 percent off all fish and game is harvested by commercial interests in Alaska. What they don't tell you is that almost all of that is taken by commercial fishermen who support the economics in most of coastal Alaska. Instead, the Starkeys of the state hammer away at how only 1.1 percent goes to subsistence and 0.6 percent to sport.

All of that is true, and it is a big, fat, red herring. The problems of the day are not with commercial harvests. Problems exist in places with little or no commercial harvest, like the Kuskowim River. Here's all you need to know about that river at the heart of the current debate:

  • Commercial fishing for king salmon on the river ended by order of the state Board of Fisheries in 1987.
  • The same board in 2001 established a goal of trying to provide 64,500 to 83,000 kings per year for subsistence. The vast majority of the subsistence fishermen on the Kusko are Alaska Natives. State fisheries managers have been battling to meet this goal of getting them their fish for a decade.
  • There are no sport fisheries on the main stem of the Kusko. Despite these facts, the AFN -- manipulated by Starkey and others like him -- passed a resolution calling for an amendment to the state constitution to provide subsistence hunting and fishing "rights'' for Alaska Natives. The state already has a problem-fraught law that provides a subsistence priority for all Alaskans -- brown, white, black or yellow. It has been difficult to implement in areas where resources are in short supply. The state has set up complicated systems to score individuals, sometimes communities, based on their dependence -- economic, cultural and otherwise -- on the resource. It has then awarded permits to people with the highest scores. Ironically, had the state system been in place along Kusko this summer, a few people might have been able to fish. But the system wasn't in place, and fearing a whole bunch of subsistence fishermen throwing their nets in the water was quickly going to lead to overfishing, salmon managers shut down the king fishery. They had no choice.

    Here's the rub:

    Resource-poor Alaska

    Much of Alaska is, in many respects, a resource-poor state. Many refuse to accept this, but it's true. That 98.3 percent of the resource that goes to commercial interests? A large part of it is pink salmon no one really wants from the rich coastal ecosystems of Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. Another big chunk is sockeye salmon from the bountiful, lake-filled drainages Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet and the Copper River valley. 

    There were 66.1 million pinks and 35.5 million sockeye caught commercially in the state this year. The commercial catch of kings was 297,000 fish. Almost 230,000 of those were caught in Southeast Alaska -- nearly 1,000 miles south of the center of the salmon shortage in the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

    There were 8,000 kings caught commercially in Kuskokwim Bay and less than 1,000 caught in the river as bycatch in the chum salmon fishery. There were no kings reported caught commercially in the Yukon River because the commercial fishery was closed. Despite that, only an estimated 106,731 of the big fish made it up that river to spawn. The average harvest once numbered almost one and a half times that.

    From 1989 to 1998, the average harvest on the river was 155,549 kings per year -- and escapements were met. Then came problems. The average catch fell toward 70,000 per year as fisheries managers tried to protect the embattled escapement. By and large, they succeeded at the latter task, but returns have continued to weaken year by year.

    The situation on the Kuskokwim has been somewhat better. Runs there faltered around the start of the new millennium and then seemed to recover. Now, however, Kusko kings appear headed in the direction of Yukon kings. And the Yukon doesn't look so much like a collapse as it does a new norm.

    More than a few Alaska fisheries biologists were talking quietly about this over the summer. No one really wants to say it out loud, but look at the data. The graph that came with the state's "2012 Yukon River Salmon Fisheries Outlook" couldn't make things any clearer.

    From 1982 to 1997, the number of fish coming back to the river each year yo-yoed around the 300,000 mark. For the past 15 years, it has yo-yoed around the 200,000 mark. And if one looks at just the last five years, it appears to be moving toward a new mark around 150,000.

    Who's the bogeyman?

    This is not good. Everybody wants to find a responsible bogeyman. The by-catch in the $1 billion offshore pollock fishery usually fills the bill, even if the high estimate on by-catch there wouldn't get the Yukon return up to where Alaskans would like it to be.  

    This is an old story. Find someone to blame. It's human nature, given other humans are the only thing we can control. It's downright scary to think about what happens if the problems are the fault of Mother Nature, something out of our control.

    What happens then to the hunting and fishing "rights'' many have been misled to believe are theirs? Exercise those rights on declining populations of salmon, and pretty soon there will be no salmon. But then, there has never been a right to fish. The "rights'' issue has been one of the 49th state's biggest myths for a long time.

    Fishing and hunting are privileges. They have been such since conservation efforts first began to appear among humanoid animals. The tribal chiefs of the Pacific Northwest appear to have been regulating harvests long before Columbus hit the beach on the other side of the continent. For the survival of the salmon, archaeologists Sarah Campbell and Virginia Butler write, "most important were the beliefs and social institutions (including ownership, regulation, rituals, and monitoring) that placed restraints on salmon use as a common pool resource."

    The situation in Alaska was, of course, somewhat different in that most of the aboriginal inhabitants of the state were nomadic. They moved around in search of fish and wildlife. If they killed everything off in one location, or depressed populations to where they would no longer support a family-size tribe, they moved on to better grounds. This doesn't happen anymore.

    What's best for the salmon?

    Communities are now fixed in place and cemented there with government-financed infrastructure -- community water, sewer, roads, telecommunications and airports. All things people living circa 2012 believe they need and deserve. There is no going back.

    Starkey might be right that people in Western Alaska would feel better if their tribe, instead of the white tribe that can seem more than a little all-knowing at times, were making the decisions. I'd feel better if Native scientists making these decisions. That might help undercut efforts to play Alaskans off against each other for political purposes.

    But the underlying fact here is that the color of the skin of the biologists in charge really doesn't matter, because the responsible decision doesn't depend on the color of anyone's skin. It depends on what is best for the salmon.

    At the moment,  sad to say, it appears we're all in a situation vis-a-vis king salmon where what is good for the salmon is not good for us. In that situation, the only responsible thing to do is rule on the side of the fish and tell people they're going to have to deal with the fact Mother Nature is a fickle bitch.

    She pounds Alaska with hurricane force storms. She shakes the state with city-flattening earth quakes. One hundred years ago this year, she unleashed the Novarutpa volcano that blew up a good chunk of the Alaska Peninsula. Why would anyone expect her to be always generous to us with salmon?

    Too many seem to have forgotten what Alaska has been through in the not so distant past. 

    Depressed salmon runs helped lead the push for Alaska statehood in the belief Alaskans could manage the fish better than the faraway feds. Alaskans didn't get off to a great start. Continued depressed runs led to the state spending more than $100 million on fish hatcheries starting in the 1970s and passing a constitutional amendment in 1972 to create limits on the number of commercial fishermen.

    Throughout that period, bitter battles were fought between the fish managers, who closed commercial fisheries to protect salmon, and fishermen, who had little choice but to fish or find a new way of life. Many did the latter. They had little choice. From 1969 to 1975, the sockeye salmon catch in upper Cook Inlet south of Anchorage never topped 880,000 fish.

    Scientists haven't done badly

    Cook Inlet is home to the state's most popular sport and commercial fisheries, and who gets the salmon there has been hotly contested for decades now. The commercial catch of sockeye this year was about 4 million, and commercial fishermen thought they had a mediocre year. Personal-use dipnetters generally got all they wanted, but some of them, too, complained they didn't get enough.

    We might not like the salmon scientists who tell us when to fish and when to stop -- much like those Pacific Northwest Indian chiefs once did -- but the scientists have, by and large, done good.

    It is now this way all over the state. The scientists this summer told a lot of people they couldn't fish. They may be telling that to more next summer, and the screaming is going to get overwhelming if what is happening on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers is a precursor for what is to come. There are some good scientists who believe that might be the case. There are others who think maybe they can find a real bogeyman -- maybe that bycatch of salmon in the offshore trawl fisheries for bottomfish, or the great annual spill of hatchery fish into the North Pacific Ocean. 

    Kate Myers, a retired biologist from the University of Washington school of fisheries, stuck her neck out at Alaska's salmon symposium and suggested hatchery fish might simply be more competitive than wild Alaska chinooks -- or at least those chinooks from the Yukon-Kuskokwim -- in the hunt for food. "This is a huge area, and people have avoided thinking about it," she said.

    Nobody wants to think about it. The entire Prince William Sound fishery in Alaska is built on hatcheries, as is the entire salmon business in Japan. The Russians, needless to say, have watched these successes and are now planning major new hatcheries just across the sea from Alaska. If over-stuffing the ocean with hatchery-spawned salmon is part of the problem, the suffering in the remote, western corner of 49th state may only have begun.

    And in the short term, possibly even in the long term, all Alaska can really do is try to protect its wild stock of fish and hope things get better instead of worse because Mother Nature is beyond our control, and what is in our control offers nothing but difficult choices:

    • Should Cook Inlet commercial setnetters be bankrupted, as some were this summer, to save a few hundred Kenai River kings?
    • Should subsistence fishermen along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers be forced to accept food stamps or charity to save a few thousand kings, or tens of thousands?
    • Should sport fishing guides on the Kenai River be put out of business to save possibly less than 100 fish in catch-and-release fisheries where most hooked kings survive their release. After all, the guides -- and the local economy -- pocket millions in cash from tourist anglers who just want the opportunity to bring one of these prized, monster fish alongside a boat?
    • Should a $1-billion business in pollock caught in offshore trawls be eliminated to save tens of thousands of kings, the survival of which might be meaningless when split between all of the Alaska rivers already short tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of kings?

    These are difficult questions even if people can avoid the temptation to play bitter and divisive politics with them, and the answers to the questions might not -- God forbid -- be in problems caused by humans. Alaska might just be victim to one might call a perfect storm, a wholly natural event.

    The author’s views are his own and not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com