Board of Fish and the public dissect recommendations for state’s plan to conserve Nushagak kings
The Board of Fisheries and members of the public discussed the state’s action plan to protect Nushagak kings on the second day of the statewide meeting Saturday. Many people who testified discussed how many sockeye should go unharvested in order to conserve the struggling king runs.
One recommendation dominated the discussion. It would greatly increase sockeye escapement goals in years when those runs are expected to be high. The aim is to allow more kings to swim through the district to spawning grounds. The Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute’s king salmon committee developed the recommendation, which would limit fishing pressure by reducing commercial fishing time in June, depending on how many sockeye return. The latest the fishery would open would be June 28.
The plan would work by implementing sliding sockeye escapement goals for the Nushagak and Wood rivers based on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s projected run.
Originally, the king salmon committee recommended adding 6% to the current escapement goal when the Wood River sockeye run is forecast to be over 7 million. But during the meeting on Saturday, Board member Tom Carpenter submitted language in RC41 — and later in RC53 — that makes it easier to raise the escapement goal. It does so by lowering the Wood River trigger from 7 million to 5 million fish, which means state biologists can manage more conservatively even when the sockeye run is smaller.
At the start of the Committee of the Whole discussion on Saturday morning, Nushagak Area Management Biologist Tim Sands said an optimum escapement goal would allow managers to ease up on fishing pressure throughout the season.
“This provides an opportunity to have windows and pulses and protect king salmon,” Sands said. “So having a higher [optimum escapement goal] gives us room to have more windows for king salmon conservation.”
The balance between fishing time and state regulation to protect returning salmon is highly scrutinized, as 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. But as sockeye runs have increased, kings have declined sharply.
Depending on what the board decides, the state’s Nushagak king action plan will also determine when the fleet goes fishing.
Right now, the trigger to open up commercial fishing in the Nushagak District during years of low king returns is 100,000 sockeye projected to escape up the Wood River. In recent years, managers have held off on opening fishing until around 150,000 fish have passed the tower. If the king salmon committee's recommendation is adopted, either 6% of the projected Nushagak sockeye run or 10% of the projected Wood River sockeye run would have to escape in order to open commercial fishing before June 28. Sands said that means the department would hold off on fishing longer than it has.
“So this year, 8 million [sockeye] forecast, 800,000 will be 10%. And we've been opening at 100 - 150,000 [sockeye escaped],” Sands said. “So you can see it provides substantially more protection.”
The king salmon committee recommends June 28 as the date to start fishing if the king runs are low, which is a few days after the historical mid-point of the king run.
Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang cited the state’s obligation to “pass fish in relation to the overall timing of the run,” and asked how the plan would protect the second half of the run. Sands said they’d still have emergency authority.
“My plan would be to still continue the kind of pulse fishing schedule that we've been using, where we were trying to close on those tides for at least the first three hours of the flood to continue having at least some windows in the fishery,” he said.
Member Märit Carlson-Van Dort repeated what both the public and the department had said throughout the meeting — that what all parties are looking for is clearer direction.
“What the department I believe is asking for, what I'm interested in hearing from the public in committee, is guidance to you on how to do that in not only the first half of the run, but the second half of the run, too. Because just because 50% went by, doesn't mean we don’t still have a problem,” she said.
Sands also said the runs are extremely variable from year to year. That can make it difficult to determine the best date to open the fishery ahead of season.
“The biggest problem with the sockeye number is it's going to be an average,” he said, pointing out that in any given year the run can pour in extremely quickly. “For example, in 2022, [the fleet] caught 800,000 on June 23, and then another 800,000 went through on June 25 just in the Nushagak.”
BBSRI’s Jeff Regnart helped facilitate the king salmon committee meetings over the past four years. Speaking to the board, he reiterated that the recommendation delays the start of commercial fishing and gives managers options to slow down fishing after the district opens.
“We have triggers both in the Nushagak and in the Wood River to delay fishing through the 28th,” Regnart said. “And then after the 28th, you have about 40% of the Chinook run still to return. And the committee recognized that and felt that the [optimum escapement goal] approach gives a lot more flexibility for the department to proactively manage for the conservation of kings by restricting fisheries, allowing windows to pass through the district would be the best option.”
The BBSRI king salmon committee is made up of eight members. It was formed after proposals on Nushagak kings were put before the board at the 2018 Bristol Bay meeting. The board disbanded it a year later, but encouraged the committee to continue its work. BBSRI’s Michael Link said the committee has participated in public Nushagak Advisory Committee meetings, but hasn’t always opened its own meetings to the public in order to work more efficiently.
“As it was, it took years through the pandemic to get it done,” he said. “So we were a little bit pragmatic about just how broad public posting [was], and we couldn't function with 50 or 100 people at the meetings, so we tried to keep it to 10 or 20.”
Much of the public testimony was in support of the BBSRI working group’s recommendations, and during the Committee of the Whole, additional testimony supported the RC41 update. Many residents of the Nushagak area also supported continuing status quo management of the subsistence fisheries there.
Aside from the action plan, three proposals address the longstanding Nushagak-Mulchatna King Salmon Management Plan.
Proposal 11 would enact triggers that provide stricter direction for management biologists – for example, if above 5 million fish are forecast for the Wood River, biologists would be required to manage the run to the upper end of the goal range. The same goes for the Nushagak's trigger of 2.5 million fish. Below that, they’d be tasked with managing so that the run’s escapement stayed in the lower end of the goal. It would also implement a test fishery, and shall restrict the king salmon sport fishery to catch and release and will also prohibit the use of bait. Finally, it says the department may restrict subsistence fishing through emergency orders.
Proposal 13, from BBSRI king salmon committee member and sport fishing lodge owner Brian Kraft, would implement scheduled closures in the Nushagak District, with some flexibility for extenuating circumstances. But many fishermen said that the managers should be able to react to the runs in real time, and that scheduled closures would hamper their ability to do so. During Committee of the Whole, Kraft also suggested raising the upper end of the optimum escapement goal for sockeye, which would allow for even more conservative management during the season.
Meanwhile, Peter Pan Seafoods fisheries supported the RC41 amendment but asked for the start date to be moved up from June 28 to June 25, which the company’s representative said would allow the processor to start operations before the peak of the sockeye run.
The Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the action plan and proposals 11 - 13 at 9 a.m. on Sunday. We’ll livestream Sunday’s meeting at KDLG.org.
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