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Salmon science: Should Alaska biologists consider local traditional knowledge, too?

Suzanna Caldwell
Gunnar Ebbesson photo

The season is long over for Alaska’s king salmon fishermen, but the debate over what went wrong this summer still percolates.

Hundreds of Alaska scientists, Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials, fishermen and others descended on downtown Anchorage Monday for the Alaska Chinook Salmon Symposium to discuss where research needs improvement.

“We need a comprehensive look at everything we know and everything we don't,” said Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. “This is just one step into the process to create a robust research plan.”

While the event was meant to highlight fishery research, the discussion focused more on the plight of subsistence fishermen, many of whom filled the Egan Center.

Perhaps the fishermen were capitalizing on the momentum of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, which ended Saturday and where subsistence took center stage.

At that convention, also held in Anchorage, AFN passed a resolution calling on the state to amend its constitution to recognize “Alaska Native subsistence and tribal rights.”

'Same old, same old'

The opening session of the salmon symposium focused on framing the issue, with a series of presentations by scientists and Fish and Game biologists on what is known and unknown about the chinook that return to Alaska rivers and streams.

Presentations varied from talks on abundance and scarcity to the harm posed by commercial trawlers that count tens of thousands of chinook salmon in their bycatch.

Dr. Jim Fall, statewide program manager for the Division of Subsistence, discussed trends in Alaska’s subsistence harvests. He noted that 34 percent of the chinook salmon caught statewide goes to subsistence fishermen. While the harvest occurs from Southeast to the Northwest, the bulk of subsistence fishing is in Western Alaska.

John Linderman, Yukon-Kuskokwim regional supervisor for the state's Division of Commercial Fisheries, noted that the Pilot Station sonar on the Yukon River counted the weakest chinook run on record, just 106,000 fish by the end of the season. At the same time, the river saw a record chum -- some 2.1 million fish.

Linderman said that while it was unfortunate the runs overlapped, Fish and Game has to follow regulations put forth by the Board of Fish.

“Management for escapement is first,” he said.

That's exactly the issue for rural subsistence fishermen.

“It's the same old, same old,” said Myron Naneng, the Bethel-based president of the Association of Alaska Village Council Presidents. “I'm not surprised. It's the same mode of operation that they've always had.”

While the panel often mentioned the need for improving “LTK” (local traditional knowledge), one thing noticeably missing from the eight-member panel was a rural Alaskan voice.

“Traditional knowledge is sacred,” said Orville Huntington of the Interior Alaska village of Huslia. “You have to look at where the stories are coming from.”

Naneng asked the panel to consider including an intertribal member in formulating the next management plan and added that locals often have the best knowledge of the areas they fish.

Linderman, who manages the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, told Naneng that processes currently exist at the regional level to include locals in decision making.

But having more voices involved is “something we're open to and certainly something we'll continue with,” he said.

In a question-and-answer session from the public, many appealed to the panel for help. Jackson Williams, a member of the Lower Kuskokwim Advisory Committee from Akiak, was among them. “I can understand conservation,” he said, “but when it comes to the food and blood of my people, we're hurting.”

Steve Ivanoff of Unalakleet expressed sympathy for other Alaskans dealing with the plight of poor king salmon runs. For decades, he said, king runs in his Northwest Alaska town have been pitiful.

“I didn't realize that when we fell off the cliff so many of you would follow,” he said.

Statewide issue

This summer, chinook runs across the state started slow and stayed that way. The season ended with disastrous king returns across much of the state. Fish and Game biologists, who say they manage Alaska waterways with conservation in mind, clamped down on fishermen across the state to ensure that escapement -- or the amount of fish needed to return to spawning grounds -- would be met, avoiding a potential waterfall of shortages in the future.

On the Kenai Peninsula, sport fishermen found themselves under increasingly strict regulations, first with catch-and-release limits and later total bans. On top of that were restrictions for set netters, who were targeted because in their efforts to harvest millions of red salmon destined for the Kenai River, hundreds of precious kings were caught, too.

Millions of dollars of revenue was lost by businesses catering to sport fishermen and the beached commercial set netters, according to fishing advocates.

In Western Alaska, managers clamped down on subsistence. Some fisherman, worried about providing food for their families, defied the ban. Alaska State Troopers descended, seizing dozens of nets, 1,000 pounds of fish and issuing citations to 61 fishermen.

In both regions, Gov. Sean Parnell requested a disaster declaration from U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. In September, Blank granted that request, which allows Congress to dispense disaster relief funds.

Biologists will take input from the symposium, and from online public comment until Nov. 9 to determine what sort of research should be done. The information will be considered as part of the department's fiscal year 2014 funding request.

The symposium continues Tuesday.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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