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The Salmon Project: Size matters

  • Author: Charlie Campbell
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published February 12, 2014

(Eleventh of 15 parts)

I've attended lots of Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings over the years, but my gut told me today's meeting was going to be one of the worst. I felt I-told-you-so boiling up, but told myself to control my anger and my nerves, and be effective.

Fishing was over for the year, another in a series of dismal king salmon returns on the Yukon River. Now it was January, 2013, and I had flown down to Anchorage from the village of Tanana to testify on behalf of our Tanana-Rampart-Manley Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

As I made my way into the meeting, already underway, I smelled crummy hotel coffee mixed with the familiar nervous sweat-scent of fishermen out of their comfort zone.

It had been about six years, but scanning the room it was interesting to see the same fishermen and managers from years back, a little grayer and a few pounds heavier in the same flannel shirts and suits. Nothing much had changed.

I looked for our upriver delegation and saw all three guys sitting together in the front row: Stan Zuray, like myself from Tanana, Virgil Umphenhour from Fairbanks, and Victor Lord from Nenana.

Across the aisle to the right were thirty or more fishermen from the Yukon Delta. Their main lobbyist was sitting right behind us, alongside one of the lower river managers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Very cozy.

"Hey," I whispered, sliding into a seat next to Stan. "Are they taking testimony yet?"

"Not yet, just about to. We signed you up, and you're first."

On cue, the chairman began to speak. He was sitting in the center of the row of board members at a long table: they looked magisterial and forbidding.

"The first up is Charles Campbell. Please state who you are representing."

I thought, I bet they've never had a fisherman asking them to do anything quite like this.

***

I have to back up a bit here.

We have a beautiful subsistence and commercial fish camp in the middle of the Alaska Interior on the swift, wide Yukon River, plenty of deep water flowing through a cool verdant canyon among big granite boulders. We have a fishwheel and catch, cut, smoke, and dry king salmon and the good fall chum salmon for food. We cut the later poorer quality chums to feed our dog team through the winter.

This spot at The Rapids on the Yukon is the place Tanana people have always gathered to fish kings and chums. It's a cheerful, labor-intensive, cooperative endeavor with village friends and neighbors.

I came to this area around 1980 from Fairbanks, (and before that New England and Ontario) looking for a life just like this. We raised our kids here at this fish camp and in Tanana, a mostly Athabascan village of 250 souls 35 miles away, a traditional trading area at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers.

And what gorgeous kings! Even 730 miles from the mouth they are still robust and fat; it's still a long way to their spawning grounds.

Sometimes getting up in the morning to check the wheel and bring some fresh kings down to chill in a tank of cold running creek water with the day all sunny and new, I feel like the luckiest man in the world. The sound of a fish wheel splashing in the current is to me the very song of a hot summer day in the interior. It makes me think of paradise, of what I have to lose.

Everybody raised in Tanana knows and values this life. If I run into someone there who can smell fish and cottonwood smoke on my clothes, they might say with satisfaction, "Mmm, you smell like camp! I'm hungry for fish, you got any?"

Then, about 12 years ago, the trouble began. We started noticing we weren't ducking so much in the smokehouse under the long cut strips that came from the biggest kings. The kings were ... shrinking.

It's funny how fishermen are chronic optimists. You go up to the fish box on the wheel and you think, hey, there's a nice big king. The biggest in the last two weeks.

Then you weigh it, and find it's barely 30 pounds. Thirty-pounders used to be a twice-a-day occurrence. We'd catch several 40-pounders per week, and see a handful of 50-pound-plus fish in the course of the season.

We haven't seen a 50-pound king in 10 years. We got one 39-pound king in 2013. The research project weighing and measuring our area's catch over the past 10 years confirms this decline. In 2013 the average king sampled in our area weighed 13 and a half pounds! That's not what a king salmon used to be; that's what everybody called a jack.

Why does size matter? Because, the big females produce the most eggs, and the eggs are healthier and bigger. With their bulk and strength, the big kings can move large rocks out of the way to make their redds (nests) and are able to deposit those eggs deeper in the gravel, protection against predation. This expands their range on swift running creeks -- they can exploit locations where smaller fish can't.

The loss of the big kings is a classic symptom of selective overfishing. The consensus among many biologists is that the main culprit is overharvest with large mesh gillnets used for many years in the commercial fishery that selected out the biggest kings.

Drifting with gillnets was introduced to the commercial fishery in the lower river districts in the late 1970s, and by the mid '80s, the catch numbers had ratcheted up dramatically. With 8.5-inch mesh, the big females were getting hammered. Fred Anderson, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game Yukon River manager at the time notes that "... the catch-per-unit-effort went sky high." Only in 2010, after a decade of upriver groups' petitioning, did the board finally reduce the maximum mesh size to 7.5 inches. Some have argued that this just targets the next age/size class down.

While anyone with gear in the water (including us) bears some responsibility, the lower river districts drift fishery caught most of these big fish.

It's not just size that's down; numbers are too. The Yukon River Panel established by Treaty between the U.S. and Canada has set a minimum border passage escapement number of 42,500 kings. (Some argue the number is set too low.) In 2013 the joint U.S.-Canada sonar counting project near the village of Eagle counted 30,715 kings (including the little "jacks") going into Canada. In fact, according to the sonar count, only two of the past seven seasons have produced border passage over the minimum!

A running fishwheel takes a simple grab-sample of whatever fish are going by rather than selecting for a certain size the way gillnets do. We saw a size decline that the gillnet fishermen could not -- and we had been sounding the alarm for at least a dozen years. What was excruciating was that no one listened. Not the downriver fishermen, not the Department of Fish and Game, not the Board of Fisheries.

We upriver fishermen became increasingly shrill about the shrinking kings to any Fish and Game person who would listen, at any meeting we attended -- but got nothing back but skepticism and patronizing unconcern. Nobody wanted to admit that the run was failing on their watch.

Meanwhile, the big commercial interests in the Yukon Delta were in denial: The problem was ocean conditions ... it was low water ... it was high water ... it was cyclical ... it was imaginary.

Of course Fish and Game's job on the Yukon is difficult: managing a mixed stock fishery destined for hundreds of tributaries in an opaquely silty river 2,000 miles long, and if you make the wrong call, the fishermen howl. One could understand the habitual protective crouch.

But, considering that Fish and Game's job is to make policy recommendations to the board, the department's passivity on the king decline was maddening. Why wouldn't they do something to save this fish stock?!

***

Well, if the Department of Fish and Game couldn't say it, we would.

"In summary, Mister Chairman, our advisory committee is asking for a two-year moratorium on any kind of king salmon fishing or king bycatch in the entire Yukon River drainage, with a reassessment at the end of that two-year period. Thank you for your consideration."

The speech was over, but the board members' heads were all still up. And they had asked me questions -- mostly about the problem of how kings could be released unharmed during a concurrent lower river commercial summer chum fishery.

After a few more fishermen testified, the chairman announced a short break. A board member walked up and said to me, "You know, while you were talking, the chairman passed me a note that said this was something we should seriously consider. Thank you for that testimony. Your AC has some courage."

At that point I began to feel hope for the first time in years that we on the Yukon might not repeat the depressing story of the king salmon on the Columbia River, or the cod in the Atlantic: going, going, gone....

But the board meeting went on for two more days. Plenty of time for testimony from the lower river about how important king salmon were to them and their ancestors ... why they should be allowed a heavy commercial take of the summer chum salmon without worrying too much about king by-catch ... how economically hard-up they were ... etc.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Game people were busy keeping their heads down.

So, after all this, after the post-meeting lobbying in the hotel bar, after the long sit and the chance to reconsider, our fresh idea needed to be ... adjusted downwards a bit ... moratorium was just a little too radical an idea for the moment....

About all the board did in the end was to mandate protecting the first pulse of kings with subsistence closures and to prohibit the sale of kings taken as by-catch during the lower river summer chum commercial fishery. Good, but small, tentative steps.

We didn't convince the Board of Fisheries or the lower river fishermen this time. But here you are reading this. And maybe you are even one of those folks. Here's what I say to you -- the unabridged version:

Get a backbone! Agree to a moratorium on the Yukon king salmon and on any king by-catch until they come back in strength. You can tell your grandkids that you did the right thing. Or, you can tell them what a Yukon king used to look like.

Charlie Campbell came to Alaska in 1975, and has commercially fished salmon in Kodiak and Bristol Bay. He currently lives in Tanana and runs a fishwheel on the Yukon River for king and chum salmon. As a regular columnist with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner from 1989 to 2003, he wrote about Alaskan interior bush life, politics, and fisheries.

The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

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.

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