Alaska Board of Fisheries navigates ‘uncharted territory’ for Southeast’s king salmon

All eyes are on the Board of Fisheries as they deliberate conservation strategies for king salmon, which are returning in poor numbers across Southeast. Steve Heinl and Ed Jones presented Jan. 15 on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s draft action plans. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries faces some tough decisions this week.

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One of those is how to conserve dwindling king salmon stocks in a way that won’t financially cripple Southeast salmon fishermen.

Three days of marathon testimony wrapped up Wednesday, with hundreds of fishermen testifying before the Board of Fisheries.

The board meets every three years to write and revise fishing rules and it holds great sway over the fortunes of the commercial fleet and fishing guides.

Subsistence users are acutely affected by the board’s decisions too.

For groups that traditionally find little common ground, there is consensus on this: king salmon are in trouble.

I’m extremely concerned for the fate of the king salmon,” Haines-based fisherman Lindsay Johnson told the Board. “I’ll gladly do whatever the experts proscribe to bring them back.”

Many fishermen told the board they are willing to embrace added restrictions to conserve the run, but how far those conservation measures go is in dispute.

Alaska Department Fish and Game biologists presented a range of options, from maintaining the status quo to blanket restrictions and widespread closures.

Dan Gray, the Southeast supervisor in charge of king salmon, said there’s a lot at stake for a lot of people.

“Certainly the fishermen are concerned about their futures — and rightfully so,” Gray said. “This is uncharted territory for king salmon.”

King, or chinook, salmon are valuable. Recently they’ve been fetching in excess of $10 a pound for fishermen.

Sitka troll fisherman Tad Fujioka said in an interview Wednesday that closing fishing from March to July would be devastating.

“Almost all of the fishermen are Alaska residents that time of year, many of them from small communities. The fishery is right in front of Hoonah, right in front of Angoon,” Fujioka said. “Sweeping, big closures like that will really hurt the smaller communities.”

Tourism also is at stake.

Sitka charter boat captain Mike Sullivan told the board that proposals forcing non-residents to release any king salmon they catch would harm businesses across Southeast.

“If the charter industry suffers it will be hard for the fleet and this place to regain its reputation as an unparalleled fishing destination,” he said.

Each action plan focuses on a king salmon system and most have failed to meet their escapement goals.

Those goals represent the number of salmon that successfully return from the ocean to freshwater to spawn.

Researchers don’t know exactly the reason for the decline, only that it appears to be happening in the open ocean rather than state waters where Alaska’s salmon fisheries are managed.

Gray said the rest of the week will be intense back-and-forth between the board and select stakeholders and interest groups.

“The board takes their charge very seriously on stocks of concern,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine as to where they might go.”