Low salmon projections cancel popular Southeast Spring King Derby

The Golden North Salmon Derby has three official stations, Douglas, Auke Bay and Amalga Harbor. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

A popular Southeast spring fishing derby won’t happen this year, because there aren’t enough fish.

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The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has organized the Spring King Salmon Derby for two decades.

The Juneau-area contest has raised $475,000 for scholarships to more than 1,500 students.

But this year, the state Fish and Game Department announced it was shutting down the king salmon sport fishery in the area, because too few fish were expected to return to the Taku River, near derby grounds.

Central Council Higher Education Manager Laird Jones said it had no other choice.

“They closed the fishery from mid-April to mid-June. And the derby is typically the month of May,” Jones said. “So, no hooks in the water for king salmon.”

He said the council, a regional tribal government, considered moving the derby dates back, but decided it wouldn’t work.

Fish and Game officials aren’t sure why Taku River returns are down.

Juneau Area Management Biologist Daniel Teske said the problem is in the ocean, not the rivers where kings spawn and hatch.

“Something’s happening out there, whether it be less prey available or more predators and we are seeing it throughout a bunch of different systems here in Southeast,” Teske said.

The department on Monday also restricted chinook fishing near the Chilkat, Stikine and Unuk rivers:

  • Haines-Skagway area: The waters of Chilkat Inlet, north of Seduction Point, are closed April 15-July 15. In waters of Lynn Canal north of Sherman Rock the retention of king salmon is prohibited. Those caught must be released immediately and returned to the water unharmed from April 15-Dec. 31.
  • Ketchikan area: Fishing is closed April 1-Aug. 14 in Behm Canal and the contiguous bays enclosed to the north by a line from Point Lees to Elsie Point and a line from Elsie Point to the longitude of the outlet of Long Lake and to the south by a line from the western entrance of Bailey Bay to the northern tip of Hassler Island. In West Behm Canal, the bag and possession limit is one king salmon 28 inches or greater in length for all anglers.
  • Petersburg-Wrangell area: In the waters of District 8, for May 1-July 15, the bag and possession limit is one king salmon, 28 inches or greater in length for all anglers.

Teske said the low runs are part of a trend.

“We’ve been in a period of low productivity for the last several years and our projected return for 2017 is well below our escapement goal,” Teske said. “Therefore, we’ve had to implement some conservative regulations in order to limit harvest.”

David Turner Jr. won 2016’s Spring King Salmon Derby with a 29.25-pound salmon. (Image courtesy Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)

The Central Council supports the closure in hopes of building back fish populations.

And Jones said Fish and Game provided plenty of notice.

“They called our specialists here … around the end of December … and kind of said, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking, statisticians are still crunching the numbers and it’s looking bad,’” Jones said.

Juneau has another large fishing contest, the Golden North Salmon Derby. It’s organized by the group Territorial Sportsmen.

Board member Matt Robus said it happens after Taku kings peak.

“A very large majority of the fish poundage caught in that August derby is coho,” Robus said. “There are a few king salmon and a few other individuals of other salmon species that are caught. But by and large the whole salmon derby at that time of year is focused and based on the silver salmon run.”

That derby also raises funds for scholarships. It’s brought in more than $1.7 million for more than 300 students since the program began in 1953. Its grants are larger than the central council’s, but go to fewer people.

Robus’ group understands how the council’s cancellation affects anglers and students, he said.

“We are very sympathetic with the spring derby situation and we don’t wish that situation on anybody,” Robus said. “It’s unfortunate, but obviously, conservation of those fish stocks is the first thing … and I think everybody agrees with that.”

That’s the situation now, but salmon returns change from year to year.

Central Council’s Jones said his organization is concerned a closure could happen again in 2018.

“We’re hoping that taking some of these measures might be enough,” Jones said. “But if it happens again, we’ll have to cross that bridge and see how well our fundraising goes this year.”

The council still plans to help students with college costs, he said, and is considering other methods of raising the money.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.