Opinions

OPINION: What does science say about Yukon-Kuskokwim chum salmon declines?

salmon

Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries, often referred to as Area M, have been under fire during fish return debates in recent months. Much of this debate starts and ends with the failing returns in the Arctic Yukon-Kuskokwim, or AYK, region. What the communities of the AYK region are experiencing due to poor chum and chinook survival is heartbreaking for all Alaskans to witness. As Alaskans, we have an obligation to help one another. We as Alaskans need to understand why these regional salmon populations are experiencing poor survival, and then work together to rectify the circumstances.

Scientific literature simply does not support the hypothesis of interception in the Alaska Peninsula as the primary cause for AYK chum declines. Suggesting that the June mixed-stock fisheries harvested by the Aleut communities of Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, Akutan, Nelson Lagoon and False Pass are the cause of AYK chum declines is not reality. So, what does the best science and data say?

Demonstrable evidence for the decline of AYK chums can be found in reports and presentations by NOAA and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. An article published on the NOAA website in August 2022 details what they know: “Our science indicates that several factors working in combination due to warm water temperatures likely contributed to poor Yukon and Kuskokwim returns in the past two years.”

The research report goes on to say adults returning in 2020 and 2021 were juveniles during the particularly warm ocean years from 2016-2019. Young chum sampled in the Bering Sea during this period were in poor condition due to low prey availability and poor prey quality. Compounding this further, AYK chum then migrated during their first winter to the Pacific Gulf where they met similar poor rearing and feed conditions. These are not anecdotes; rather NOAA scientists tracked these fish over an extensive ocean grid system, measured fat content, sampled their stomach contents (prey), determined fish condition factor for one-, two-, and three-ocean year chum, and took tissue samples to determine genetic stock identification.

A National Marine Fisheries Service genetic study published in June of 2022 is cited in the December 2022 North Pacific Fisheries Management Council Chum Salmon Bycatch report with respect to detailed analysis of stock harvests in individual fishing trawls in the Bering Sea walleye pollock fishery. The conclusion based on this analysis is that chum “salmon stocks are relatively well mixed even at the haul level,” and “display similar stock proportions to those taken in six ADF&G statistical areas, an area of approximately 21,000 square kilometers and sampled through two months (stat weeks 25-32). These results were consistent with analyses of excluder device samples from 2015, in which each haul was a mix of stocks.” This is positive evidence from multiple years that chum stocks are well mixed and not subject to selective harvest over broad ocean areas.

Thus, multiple studies show that recent low chum returns to AYK are mostly due to poor rearing conditions in the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Gulf, not harvest in Area M fisheries. In 2022, Area M fishermen voluntarily reduced fishing time in order to lower chum salmon harvest. They did this to support Alaskan neighbors in the AYK region. Constructive efforts to deal with environmental change must avoid misinformation which inflames the issue. Science-based management and response has always been, and still is, the best approach for Alaska fisheries. This is not just one region’s problem — it’s Alaska’s problem. To solve it, let’s make sure we listen to the science.

Kiley Thompson is president of Area M Seiners Association. He has been a resident of Sand Point for the past 25 years and has been an active participant in the Area M seine fishery for the past 30 years.

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Steve Brown is president of Concerned Area M Fishermen. He has fished the Alaska Peninsula since 1996 and is a 30-year resident of Homer.

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