BETHEL -- Biologists who study Kuskokwim River salmon and key people who rely on the fish are immersing themselves in science and policy in advance of the state's planned 2016 adoption of new escapement -- or spawning -- goals for kings in the river.
The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, which includes elders and commercial and subsistence fishing interests, took a close look at salmon spawning over the weekend in the lead-up to the state setting a new goal. That won't happen until January 2016, but group members say they want to understand the process so residents are not left out.
The Western Alaska river is the second longest in the state, and the salmon it produces are essential to life here.
The escapement goal is an important, and complex, measure. If it is too low or too high, it can create problems for fishermen -- or for the survival of the salmon. Already, residents of Bethel and Kuskokwim villages warn that the state previously set goals too low for some tributaries and worry particularly about the Tuluksak River, for which the state eliminated the escapement goal altogether.
People in the region used to harvest more kings, or chinook salmon, for subsistence than anywhere else in Alaska, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
But crashing king numbers prevented residents from targeting them this year. Federal managers took control of the river from the state and, in an unprecedented step, shut down most subsistence fishing at the start of the season, only to allow it later after most of the kings had passed by.
Now the focus is turning to a critical number used in managing salmon runs: the escapement goal. The state Department of Fish and Game in 2013 for the first time set a goal for the entire Kuskokwim drainage, aiming for 65,000 to 120,000 kings to reach spawning grounds.
The heads of Fish and Game's commercial and sport-fish divisions approve certain escapement goals that are based on biological factors. The Board of Fish does so if other elements also come into play, including allocation or socioeconomics, according to the department. The subsistence division doesn't have a formal role in the goal approval.
Dan Gillikin, Aniak-based fisheries director for the Kuskokwim Native Association, a regional nonprofit serving 12 villages, organized and led the weekend's salmon group work session on escapement. Only eight or so of the group's 28 members and alternates came or listened in to the meeting, which disappointed group co-chair Bev Hoffman. Federal fisheries biologists, commercial fishing supervisors and experts on fish biology offered insights.
"This is more or less laying some bright lines on the road, on the path that we will have to follow during the review process," said Gillikin, the former fisheries biologist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
He said state managers must consider a range of sometimes competing issues including the complex life cycle of salmon, political pressures, commercial fishing economics, traditional reliance on fish and limits to what's known about the fish.
A goal set too high could mean restrictions on fishing if the number of salmon returning failed to meet it. But if the escapement goal were too low, not enough fish may make it to spawning grounds and that could hurt future runs.
"If we do continue to lower escapement goals, are we actually creating a lower state of productivity, by ratcheting down productivity?" asked Dave Cannon, a working group member and former federal fish biologist who lives in Aniak.
For a river so heavily relied upon, much remains unknown about Kuskokwim salmon. For instance, the state doesn't use a sonar counter there though managers are evaluating whether to install one, considering in part whether the technology can distinguish kings from chums.
Instead, the king run is reconstructed after the fact using various data sources, including counts of salmon entering key tributaries, aerial surveys, harvest surveys and estimates from a test fishery near Bethel run by the Department of Fish and Game. That work is still in progress for this year's final count.
Before last year, there were spawning goals for some Kuskokwim tributaries, but not the river system. In its 2013 review of Kuskokwim chinook escapement, the state lowered goals for three tributaries and eliminated the goal outright for Tuluksak, where only a couple of hundred of fish now return. Now, there's no measurable target for salmon production there. But the goal stayed the same for seven other rivers in the Kuskokwim watershed.
"Unless every tributary is of concern, eventually the whole drainage is going to suffer, one tributary after another," said Mary Sattler of Bethel, a working group member and former state representative who has fished since she was a child. The health of each tributary is important, she said.
True, Gillikin said, but it would be too expensive to monitor salmon at every tributary. Managers pick proxies to represent a section of river.
Subsistence fishermen, when allowed, use large nets designed for kings that drift alongside skiffs. But even smaller nets anchored in place can be highly effective. So many people fish around Bethel that salmon headed to upriver villages may never make it. That needs to be taken into consideration, group members said.
John Linderman, who oversees commercial fisheries for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, told the group that the goal for the overall Kuskokwim drainage system didn't replace the individual goals for representative tributaries. It was an added measure, he said.
One theory suggests the decline of Kuskokwim kings may be part of a cycle in which a time of high salmon productivity is followed by a period of decline, said Joe Spaeder, research coordinator for the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association and the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative. Late-returning salmon may destroy nesting areas from earlier spawners. Conditions may be too crowded for young salmon.
A modeling study found that Kuskokwim kings were susceptible to crashes after peaks, he said. But 11 other king stocks in Alaska from Southeast to Unalakleet were not.
The theory was used by Fish and Game to set the escapement goals for the Kuskokwim. But this pattern of high and low runs is not continuing; instead the Kuskokwim is experiencing years of low runs coming off previous low runs. The recent evidence doesn't support the overcrowding theory, Spaeder said.
A big question concerns the size of the subsistence harvest. Subsistence fishermen are not required to report how many Kuskokwim salmon they catch, though they are encouraged to keep a calendar and jot down their counts during runs. After the fishing season, a sampling of residents is taken door-to-door.
Surveys are inherently unreliable, Gillikin said. People may not remember correctly. Some give a low number. And some say they caught more than they did. Residents worry the government may eventually set limits on subsistence fishing and they want to nudge any limits upward, Hoffman said.
The working group's message this year was one of conservation of kings and that needs to continue, whatever happens with the escapement goal, she said.
"I don't want us to be too late."
Note: The original version of the story referred to the 2013 goal as a statewide goal. The story has been corrected to describe it as a goal for the overall Kuskokwim drainage system.