OPINION: How can we reverse Alaska’s king salmon decline?

It is mid-May and, in the not too distant past, I would be thinking about king salmon fishing, getting my gear ready and getting very excited. I would go to my favorite river, one that I call the center of the universe, to fish for kings beginning on the Memorial Day weekend. I’d see friends that I have seen for the past 48 years and other people I recognize but don’t know by name. We would fish and chat about old times and the people we no longer see because they have passed on to the Great King Salmon River in the Sky. We would all moan about the hell that is getting older and all of our aches and pains. When people asked if I went to church, I would say absolutely yes — I go to the Church of the King Salmon. After surviving a long winter, just being out in the spring on a beautiful little river with the sun shining on the mountains across a shimmering Cook Inlet is a very spiritual experience.

In mid-May, people all over the state would normally be getting ready for the king season with the opportunity to visit with friends and the obligation to pass down our fishing traditions and values. Some of us sport fish, some commercial fish and some subsistence fish, but we all love and cherish the opportunity to be out after a long winter and to maybe get a taste of fresh king salmon on the grill.

King salmon are the iconic Alaska salmon. Since about 2008, kings have exhibited a precipitous decline all over Alaska. Why? I don’t think anyone really knows. Many people want to focus on one potential factor of decline. As a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service habitat biologist with about 40 years of experience, I can say that the answer is likely complex and probably includes multiple and synergistic factors such as trawl industry bycatch, over-grazing of the ocean by hatchery pink salmon, water quality declines related to metals contamination from brake linings, orca predation, and annual hydrologic changes in rivers.

In my view, climate change and the resulting changes in both in-river and ocean conditions, and the consequent poor juvenile and adult survival is probably the most significant factor of the decline, as well as the one which will be the most difficult to address. There also may be factors we have no knowledge of. In my view, loss of habitat and hydropower dams are not significant factors of overall decline in Alaska, even though they may be local contributors.

The decline of king salmon escapements all over Alaska has resulted in closures of subsistence, sport and commercial fisheries. This has had significant economic and social consequences. Regardless of what is causing the king decline, people want solutions and we want them fast. Unfortunately, I don’t think there will be any recovery in the near-term and I am fearful that it will not happen in my lifetime.

What can we, and the local, state, and federal governments who work for us, do to reverse the decline of king salmon? We can start with those factors we think are the most likely contributors to the decline such as hatchery pink salmon, trawling, and sport, commercial and subsistence harvests and take immediate and drastic action to prevent further declines related to these factors. The Department of Fish and Game has already closed most king salmon fishing across the state. It is time to restrict hatchery release of pink salmon and to eliminate trawl fishery bycatch. For other factors, we must explore and implement actions to reduce or eliminate adverse effects, even if these actions are only on the local or state levels. Ideally, actions must be undertaken at the North Pacific Ocean level, and some may require world wide action, such as slowing climate change. Finally, Fish and Game and the Board of Fish have tended to reduce optimum escapement goals as fish escapements decline which further exacerbates the problem. In fact, escapement goals should be increased so that every possible fish gets back to a river and gets a chance to spawn. Fish and Game should be taking the lead to implement actions within its authority to mitigate factors influencing the decline of king salmon. Failure to act will ultimately result in listing of king salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and then the federal government will be responsible for restoration. This is not something that many in Alaska would welcome.

Phil Brna is a retired wildlife biologist based in Anchorage.

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