Board of Fish limits sockeye fishing to conserve Nushagak kings

March 14, 2023

The Board of Fisheries has approved an action plan to help conserve the Nushagak River’s king salmon runs, which have declined sharply in recent years even as huge sockeye returns to the district have broken records. The board voted unanimously to adopt a plan that curbs fishing time when larger sockeye runs are forecast.

By Izzy Ross, KDLG

The Nushagak’s king salmon have not been doing well. In recent years, the runs have failed to meet the minimum goal for sustainability. The in-river count has fallen short for five out of the last six years. Last fall, the state declared Nushagak kings a stock of concern and created an action plan to conserve them.

But deciding exactly what that plan would look like wasn’t easy.

King salmon runs across the state have declined over the past two decades. As of April 2022, more than a dozen king runs across the state were stocks of concern. That doesn't include runs to the Chignik and Nushagak rivers, which were designated as such later that year.

As king runs have declined, the Nushagak District’s commercial fleet has hauled in record-breaking sockeye harvests in recent years, presenting a challenge to managers who are tasked with allowing enough fishing opportunities for sockeye while still trying to let enough kings escape – that is, pass through the district to spawn. Managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said they have already held off on fishing beyond what is required and were looking for more guidance on how to balance the two species.

Courtesy Of The Alaska Department Of Fish And Game

The crux of the discussion around the action plan has focused on how much sockeye — and money — fishermen should give up in order to conserve kings. The Nushagak District has seen massive sockeye runs in recent years; in 2022 the fleet harvested almost 2.5 million fish in a single day.

“What I’m most happy about is this is going to give the [Department of Fish and Game] the leeway from the board and from public testimony saying that this is okay,” said Craig Chythlook, a commercial and subsistence fisherman who grew up in Dillingham. “We can forgo a little bit of harvest on the front end because we're conserving for subsistence.”

Chythlook said that conservation is needed; in 2021, his family caught no kings, even though they tried.

“We caught a bunch of chums, and we caught a bunch of sockeye, but we didn't catch a king,” he said. “And what I am most excited about this plan is that it's going to give the department the flexibility to conserve.”

The structure of the final action plan was created by the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute’s king salmon committee. Essentially, it relies on two tools.

The first is a set of triggers for when to open fishing based on the total sockeye forecasts. The second is an optimum escapement goal for sockeye, or OEG, which would greatly increase sockeye escapement in years when those runs are expected to be high. Both are meant to decrease the commercial fishing pressure in the Nushagak District.

The final plan, approved by the board on Sunday, includes three triggers to open up fishing in the district: When the Wood River’s sockeye escapement reaches 10% of the total projected run, when the Nushagak River’s escapement reaches 6% of that run, and the hard start date of June 28. In the past, the district opened several days before that, when more than 100,000 sockeye were projected to swim up the Wood River.

“So this year, eight million [sockeye] forecast, 800,000 will be 10%. And we've been opening at 100 - 150,000 [sockeye escaped],” Sands told the board. “So you can see it provides substantially more protection.”

The plan also increases the sockeye escapement goals when the Wood River sockeye run is projected to be over 5 million and the Nushagak over 2.5 million. Sands said those optimum escapement goals give managers extra flexibility to have more closures throughout the season.

“Part of the concern from the board and user groups was, once we start fishing, we just fish continuously and kill everything that comes afterwards,” Sands said in an interview after the meeting. “We still want king salmon, and even sockeye salmon, and chum salmon from all parts of the run to escape with at least a chance of getting to the district without hitting the net. So that means we're going to continue having the breaks that we've been having and probably add some breaks to the set net fishery that we haven't done in past years.”

The board also voted unanimously to approve an amended proposal from the BBSRI committee to change the longstanding Nushagak-Mulchatna King Salmon Management Plan, which is in place whether kings are in trouble or not.

The original proposal would have allowed managers to cut down subsistence fishing in the Nushagak District to three days a week. Much of the testimony from Nushagak area residents and the local Nushagak Advisory Committee asked to keep subsistence fishing open seven days a week.

“Although taryaqvak, or king salmon, is our most prized species, it’s not the only species that we target,” Michelle Smith said during public testimony.

Smith, who is originally from Nunapitchuk and has lived in Dillingham for the past 30 years, testified in favor of keeping subsistence fishing status quo.

“Yupiit, the Yup’ik people, have been stewards of the fish for thousands of years. We need each of these seven days to subsist, not just to nourish our bellies but our culture and our traditions and pass these on to our kids and grandkids,” she said. “Just as you would expect to go to the grocery store each day of the week to feed your families, we depend on being able to fish seven days a week.”

The amended proposal keeps the subsistence fishery open for the full week. The change of a single word — “shall” to “may” — means that it’s less likely to restrict subsistence fishing for kings.

For the sport fishery, the action plan reduces bag limits of kings over 20 inches to four, and just one may be over 28 inches. Proposal 11 changes the sport regulations so that it cannot be closed, but rather restricted to catch and release only.

It also provides direction for how hard the commercial fleet should fish depending on the run size.

Sands, the Nushagak manager, hopes that the action plan will also help another species; chum salmon have also declined far below average.

“I think we will be much better off if we can take whatever steps now proactively to avoid becoming a chum salmon stock of concern, so we don't have to impose an even more restrictive action plan in three years,” he said.

Sands said that sacrificing a little opportunity to fish for sockeye now may save the species — and provide more fishing — later.

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