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Nushagak king salmon are now a stock of concern, which could mean big changes for the fishery

210713 chinook king salmon and sockeye salmon
Hope McKenney
A king salmon (top) and a sockeye on the deck of a tender. July 13, 2021.

The state has designated king salmon as a stock of concern in one of Bristol Bay’s commercial fishing districts. That could have widespread implications for the district and the rest of the fishery.

In recent years the Nushagak, on the west side, has been one the most prolific districts in the largest wild salmon fishery in the world. But the Nushagak River's king run has been low for years, even as sockeye runs have hit record highs.

In October, the state department of Fish and Game recommended that the Board of Fish designate Nushagak king salmon as a stock of concern. At a work session last month, the Board of Fish agreed.

"We're acknowledging that we've had this goal, this 95,000 in-river goal [for king salmon], and we failed to meet it five of the last six years," said Tim Sands, Fish and Game's west side area biologist. "That's triggering this stock of concern status."

The determination came just weeks before the state Board of Fish meeting for Bristol Bay. That meeting happens every three years and is a time for stakeholders to propose changes to fisheries regulations. The meeting was originally scheduled for 2021 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Before that meeting, the department must create an action plan to protect Nushagak king salmon and bring the population back up.

Normally, Sands said, the department would have evaluated the run over the winter and made a stock of concern recommendation months earlier. That would have given them more time to create an action plan. But they waited until after the summer season to see how large the king run would be.

"Going into the season, if we made the escapement goal, we probably wouldn't have gone for the stock of concern," Sands said. "But since we didn't make the escapement goal, it was after the season that we made the decision that we needed to recommend stock of concern status.”

Last summer, Fish and Game changed its counting method at the Nushagak sonar to get more accurate counts of kings and chum, which the department said it was underestimating. But those runs were still some of the lowest of the past 20 years.

For years, managers have delayed opening the Nushagak’s commercial sockeye fishery in an effort to let more kings swim past the fleet and up the river. Sands said designating kings as a stock of concern gives the department more regulatory tools to try to address the stock's decline.

"One of the tools that will be proposed in this action plan is the idea that the Wood River Special Harvest Area could be used to protect king salmon,” Sands said. “Currently, the Wood River Special Harvest Area can be used to protect Nushagak River sockeye salmon, and it can be used to protect Nushagak River coho salmon, but it cannot be used under current regulation to protect Nushagak River king salmon."

The public can weigh in on the department’s action plan at the upcoming Board of Fish meeting.

"The department is going to come up with several different options as far as tools go. And then the [Board of Fish] is going to select some or all of those tools based on input they receive from the department and from stakeholders,” Sands said.

The draft action plan will be available on the Fish and Game website this week. The Bristol Bay meeting begins on Tuesday.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.