June 28, 2012 | Vol. 110, No. 26

Biologists: Alaska king salmon woes tied to ocean

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Poor king salmon returns have state biologists limiting fishing throughout Alaska and biologists have their eyes on the ocean as the problem.

“We're in a period of low abundance and low returns, statewide, and whether it's from Southeast, Copper River, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Nushagak, Yukon, we're just in this period of low productivity in the ocean,” said Ricky Gease, a biologist and director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The widespread failure indicates the problem is not in freshwater, said biologist Tom Vania, Cook Inlet regional coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“Freshwater issues tend to be more isolated in a particular drainage,” Vania said. Hatchery fish also are not returning and biologists know hatchery smolt made it to sea.

The problem has been building for at least five years, Vania told the Anchorage Daily News.

“Salmon populations are cyclic in nature,” he said. “Right now, I have no reason to believe this is not just the bottom end of a cycle and that we won't come out of this cycle _ you see that in all game populations. But there are a lot of changes going on in the ocean environment right now surrounding global warming. Our understanding of what that's going to do to anadromous species we probably won't know for a number of years.”

Most king salmon hatch spend three to four years in the ocean.

Consultant Ray Beamesderfer of Cramer Fish Sciences in Oregon said ocean current shifts that began in the 1970s generally favored Alaska kings over stocks in California, Oregon and Washington.

“We used to all think the ocean was a big homogenous pasture and they all went out there and came back,” Beamesderfer said. “But now we know that there's a patchy distribution of resources in the ocean, and we know it's an extremely dynamic environment.”

Runs in California and the Pacific Northwest are doing better than they have in years, he said.

“Ocean conditions are the primary driver in the variability in what we're seeing,” he said. “The fundamentals of the Alaska salmon system are sound. The habitat is good, the fishing is controlled, there's no problem that's exacerbating these up or down cycles.”

Some fishermen suspect commercial fishing trawlers are playing a role in king salmon decline.

Kevin Delaney, a consultant who once headed the state sport fishing division, said the historical peak of upper Cook Inlet kings came in the early 1950s. A drop, he said, coincided with unregulated foreign fishing outside the nation's three-mile territorial limit.

The Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 extended the U.S. economic zone to 200 miles, but foreign trawlers eventually were replaced by U.S. vessels catching Pollock and cod _ and thousands of kings each year as bycatch from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

A December 2009 report by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council noted how bycatch of kings, also called chinook salmon, gradually increased at the same time numbers were declining in Alaska streams.

“From 1990 through 2001, the Bering Sea chinook salmon bycatch average was 37,819 salmon annually,” the report said. “Since 2002, chinook salmon bycatch numbers have increased substantially. The average from 2002 to 2007 was 82,311 chinook salmon, with a bycatch peak of 122,000 chinook salmon in 2007.”

The council in 2009 voted to limit bycatch starting last year in the Bering Sea. If 60,000 kings are caught, pollock fishing must end, said council planner Diana Stram.

Delaney said the full significance of bycatch is not known.

“Whether it's changes in the ocean environment, competitor species, climate change, bycatch in marine fisheries or a combination of all of them, the marine waters is where the hole in this bucket is,” Delaney said. “It's not in Alaskans not putting enough fish on the spawning grounds routinely across all of the streams that produce king salmon.”

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