Opinions

OPINION: Here’s what we’re doing to save Yukon River salmon

Emmonak, fishing disaster, chum salmon, subsistence, commercial fishing, Yukon River

The Anchorage Daily News editorial board recently wrote an editorial discussing its ideas on what must be done to “save” Yukon River salmon. Their take-home message was that more action needs to be taken and it needs to happen now.

I came to that conclusion when the runs began to falter. I also agree that the importance of salmon to people living along the Yukon River cannot be overstated. These fish are a foundation of the region’s culture, food security and economy. Actions are being taken, and more are planned, to understand the causes for the poor returns and what can be done to address them.

As Alaskans all know, salmon have a complicated life history, spending time in both freshwater and saltwater. This is magnified in the Yukon River, where salmon swim as far as 1,800 miles to spawn in Canada and the same distance downstream as outmigrant juveniles before entering the Bering Sea to begin their life in the ocean, where they spend several years before returning to start the cycle again. The study area is massive, there are many data gaps and answers take time. That is the cold, hard reality. It’s like there is this 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and many of the pieces are gray.

But like a jigsaw puzzle, we are starting to see the picture emerge piece by piece. We are committed to doing everything we can to better understand what is happening to these iconic runs. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in cooperation with many partners, have numerous studies underway to try to uncover the underlying reasons for the poor returns and more studies planned

What is currently being studied?

Cultural impacts and food security: The department recognizes that salmon are culturally important and critical to the well-being of Alaska’s communities, families and individuals. We are actively working with communities throughout the Yukon River to document the socio-cultural, economic and nutritional value of salmon, focusing on the myriad harvest and use practices along the river as well as the sharing networks that characterize Alaska’s subsistence economies. Working alongside community partners ensures that these impacts are accurately documented and represented and creates an additional avenue for stakeholders to be actively engaged with management of this fishery.

This work also includes the documentation of food security metrics based on a 12-month food security questionnaire developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, modified to respond to community social, cultural and economic circumstances. Even so, the state has no monopoly on wisdom when it comes to addressing food security issues. It is for this reason that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has established the Food Security Task Force. This task force is examining the issue of food security and will make recommendations how we Alaskans can improve our food security. One subcommittee is specifically examining the issue of wild foods. In the interim, fish are being distributed to impacted communities again this year to offer some relief. We understand that this is not a long-term solution and does not replace the cultural importance of catching and processing fish, but it does help put food in the freezer.

Marine surveys: Fish and Game, in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and others, is conducting surveys in marine waters that are important feeding areas for juvenile chinook and chum salmon. These studies are showing chinook salmon are experiencing reduced survival early in their life, before their first winter at sea and that chum salmon runs are being affected by recent marine heat waves and changes in their diet. We are expanding these surveys using new money the governor and Legislature appropriated last year into other areas of the Bering Sea and North Gulf Coast.

We also participated in last winter’s International Year of the Salmon Pan-Pacific Expedition Survey. This multi-nation study was conducted in the open ocean throughout the North Pacific rim. It was designed to assess diet, growth and distribution of immature salmon, among other things, as they grow in the ocean before returning as adults. This is the first time in history that there has been a coordinated and comprehensive effort to get a snapshot of Pacific salmon throughout their marine range. Initial results show that climate is having eco-system level impacts that are influencing salmon growth and survival. The large volumes of samples and data collected are currently being processed by a multitude of labs, including ours.

Predation: The amount of predation of salmon in the ocean has been identified as a potential significant factor impacting salmon survival. Since the adoption of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the number of marine mammals in the North Pacific has ballooned. Increased numbers of whales, sea lions, seals and otters have been documented throughout Alaska. These marine mammals, and other predators such as sharks, eat a lot of salmon and also consume food eaten by salmon. The University of Alaska and ADF&G both have studies to evaluate predation by more numerous salmon sharks that have been identified as an important contributing factor.

Disease: King salmon can contract a disease called Ichthyophonus while in the ocean. We are seeing signs that this disease is negatively impacting the freshwater survival of returning adult Yukon chinook salmon. We are working with partners to determine the extent of this disease and the impact in may be having.

Bycatch: We know that Western Alaska chinook and chum salmon are bycaught in pollock trawl fisheries. Although the science indicates that bycatch is not a significant factor causing the low returns of chum salmon experienced of 2021 and 2022, the department is looking at ways to further reduce bycatch. Because the department does not have management authority over these fisheries, we are working through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, to address this issue. We have established hard caps on chinook salmon bycatch that are linked to abundance. And we are evaluating establishment of hard caps for chum salmon.

As the editorial board pointed out, Gov. Dunleavy has also put together a Bycatch Task Force. This task force is currently examining the issue and is poised to come back this fall with recommendations. Included will be an independent assessment of the impact of bycatch, what is needed from a science and research perspective, and what can be done to better regulate bycatch. Also, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is evaluating bycatch and has asked for a discussion paper and formed a work group to evaluate what further can be done.

Interceptions: The department is also addressing the harvest of salmon in various mixed stock fisheries. One such fishery is the South Alaska Peninsula (Area M) fishery. This fishery has come under scrutiny as a possible factor affecting the reduced chum returns to western Alaska rivers. We know from previous studies that most of the fish caught in this fishery are not of coastal Western Alaska origin, but these studies are dated, so this year the department collected genetic samples to update this information. We also worked with fishermen and processors involved in this fishery to reduce the harvest of chum salmon, resulting in a decrease by more than 50% from last year. The Alaska Board of Fisheries will be discussing the management of these fisheries this winter.

What is planned?

The department will soon be unveiling a comprehensive research plan addressing other factors impacting these and other salmon in Alaska. It is our hope that we will find partners that are willing to work with us putting the puzzle pieces together to reveal the complete picture of the causes for the declines and what can be done to address them. We are exploring new technologies to help get at some of the important data gaps. Included will be additional marine surveys, new in-river radio telemetry studies, and methods to assess the in-river survival of juvenile salmon using newly developed technologies.

The department is also addressing the question whether rehabilitation of runs through hatchery production is both feasible and acceptable. This is a highly controversial issue and must be well studied and thoroughly vetted. We do not want to repeat the failed experiments of the Lower 48 caused by ill-designed stocking programs.

In sum, action is being taken and more is being proposed. Unfortunately, research takes time and answers emerge slowly. That said, ADF&G is committed to using sound science to seek those answers and take informed management actions designed to rebuild these stocks. We are not going to force a jigsaw piece where we “think” it should go. We will continue to take targeted management actions to put the necessary fish on the spawning beds. Failure to do this will jeopardize the future of these runs.

Doug Vincent-Lang is the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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