BOF to consider lowering Kusko King escapement goals

by Angela Denning-Barnes on January 14, 2013

This week in Anchorage, the Alaska Board of Fisheries will consider 70 Arctic Yukon Kuskokwim fishery proposals. The meeting runs Jan. 15-20 at the Sheraton Hotel. One proposal of special interest to the Kuskokwim looks to update the river’s Salmon Management Plan, including making some changes to the King salmon fishery. It includes reducing escapement goals on some tributaries.

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Subsistence is by far the most important fishery on the Kuskokwim River, particularly the Chinook or King salmon fishery. Approximately, a thousand households in 26 communities along the river catch Kings to eat. In the last few decades, harvests were about 80,000 to 100,000 Kings per year.

In a proposal to the Board of Fisheries, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game seeks a new management plan for King salmon to help rebuild the weak returns. It includes 62 pages of strategies and looks to lower escapement goals on some rivers.

In recent years, subsistence restrictions were implemented because managers believed escapement goals could not be met. But following a new method for calculating salmon populations, those restrictions could be prevented, according to Travis Ellison, Kuskokwim Area Management biologist for the State. He says the proposed plan is an accumulation of 10 years of collaborative research.

“One of the major things that came out of that indicated that the established goals which were based on completely different methods, that they’re overly conservative,” Ellison said.

New data shows that a larger King return comes from years with smaller-sized escapements. So, it doesn’t necessarily pay off to restrict subsistence to have more salmon returning to Kuskokwim tributaries.

“The underlying premise behind that is there’s density dependent factors. . . so there’s competition,” Ellison said.

In other words, there are too many salmon fry competing for the same food.

The new state plan would revise escapement goals on particular tributary rivers, lowering goals in three rivers and eliminating them altogether in one. According to Fish and Game, the Tuluksak River, located about 50 miles upriver of Bethel, has been “extensively altered by mining activity” and supports only a small number of Chinook salmon. The NYAC gold mine had been formerly operated there. The state proposes to discontinue the escapement goal for the Tuluksak but still monitor and manage it as necessary.

But ending escapement goals on the Tuluksak is one of a few sticking points the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has with the state’s new management proposal. In a letter to the Board of Fisheries, Pete Probasco, Assistant Regional Director of the Office of Subsistence Management says that although mining has damaged the river’s habitat, the system should still be able to support more Kings than have been returning there. The federal service says it will be more difficult for them to manage the King run without the Tuluksak escapement goal in place.

Another concern that federal managers have with the proposed plan is they think the state’s total run estimates are too low. They say the subsistence harvests are likely under reported and that the mark recapture estimates used to scale run reconstruction are too low. The federal service says they would like to delay escapement goal revisions until those concerns are more fully explored and addressed. However, the federal service agrees with most of the state’s management proposal.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has concerns with the state’s proposed plan. Myron Naneng is AVCP President.

“We have concerns about the lowering of biological escapement goals being proposed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for Kuskokwim River because of what we have seen,” said Naneng.

Naneng says they’ve watched salmon runs diminish in the Norton Sound area and on the Yukon River and they are critical of the state’s new method to gather population data on the Kuskokwim.

Naneng and other AVCP staff plan on testifying at this week’s Board of Fish meeting in Anchorage.

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