Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 5:22 PM on Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Restrictions to king salmon fisheries expected early

By Cristy Fry

Northern district setnetters and sport fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet are going to be facing restrictions early in the season due to depressed numbers of king salmon returning to the Susitna drainage this year.

Setnetters will see their fishing time cut in half.

Area management biologist Pat Shields with the Soldotna office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the plan comes from the 2011 Board of Fisheries meetings dealing with upper inlet salmon.

"In the 2011 Board of Fisheries meeting there were numerous king salmon stocks in the Northern District that were classified as stocks of management concern," he said. "So the board at that time said that we need to take some conservation actions to protect these stocks, and in the commercial fishery they took the most productive waters in the Northern District for the directed king salmon fishery, and they closed that area."

The closed area was from just south of the village of Tyonek up to the Susitna River. That was thought to have produced about a 50 percent savings in the directed commercial king salmon fishery numbers.

There also were a number of other restrictions and closures in both the commercial and sport fisheries in the areas.

After the 2011 season, the Sport Fish Division estimates of king salmon escapement in area streams, mostly done with aerial surveys, failed to make minimum escapement levels.

That led to a meeting last month to make further restrictions to the king salmon fisheries.

"Those restrictions for the commercial fishery were to take the four periods scheduled this year (for directed king salmon fishing) and reduce them in duration from 12 hours to six hours to further conserve king salmon to try to make escapements in these systems that were failing to make their goals," Shields said.

Shields said that while the Sport Fish Division has not come out with a forecast for Kenai River kings yet, he had heard ADF&G is expecting a slightly better year than 2011.

It is unclear how many king salmon returned to the Kenai River last year, so it is hard to say what slightly better might mean.

Part of the problem is that ADF&G is trying to switch to the new DIDSON sonar to enumerate the kings, something the sockeye fishery has accomplished over the past three years.

The same sonar cannot be used to count kings and sockeye because the two species tend to gravitate to different parts of the river: sockeye hang on the banks, while kings favor the middle of the river.

Rather than use the current split-beam sonar counts for kings which was deemed inaccurate, ADF&G used "indicies of abundance" in 2011, which included aerial counts, sport fish numbers and several other indications. The variability in those numbers ended up preventing a solid estimation of the 2011 return.

Soldotna ADF&G sport fish biologist Tim McKinley said while he did not have a number for the 2011 king salmon return, or even a range in which it might fall, the run struggled.

"We felt like we were down at the low end of what we needed for the run to be sustainable," he said.

However, McKinley said that while ADF&G officials are cautiously optimistic about the 2012 Kenai king salmon run, it could be similar to last year and would be managed conservatively, which may mean restrictions for sport and commercial fishermen, mostly eastside setnettters.

The boost that Alaska salmon markets got from a deadly outbreak of infectious salmon anemia that wiped out nearly half of Chile's farmed salmon may quickly be coming to an end.

The online news source Seafood News is reporting that just four years after the devastation, Chile has not only rebuilt but redesigned its farmed salmon industry, and is expecting to hit a new record for salmon production this year: 700,000 metric tons, or 1.54 billion pounds.

Not only is Chile setting a record for production, it also is dramatically altering the types of fish produced.

Prior to the ISA outbreak, Chile was producing primarily Atlantic salmon, but the new production will be only half Atlantic salmon, along with 200,000 metric tons of steelhead and 150,000 metric tons of coho salmon. The steelhead and coho are resistant to the ISA virus.

Atlantic salmon production in Chile, which had been growing at an average rate of 25 percent per year, peaked at 650,000 metric tons in 2008.

Two years later, that total had been halved, as producers harvested fish early or shut down operations altogether to clear the waters of the virus.

While the ISA virus appears to have arrived with salmon eggs imported from Norway, critics both inside and outside the industry blamed it on the exponential growth, which led to overcrowded pens that created an environment susceptible to the virus.

However, the industry has recovered rapidly, with many farms switching to coho and steelhead, and new government regulations were imposed, with industry support, halving the density in fish pens and instituting a broad range of bio-security measures designed to prevent the spread of any future outbreaks.

"We were so arrogant," Adolfo Alvial, a highly respected marine biologist and consultant who has worked with the industry for three decades, told Seafood News. "This little country in South America showing the world how to build a world-class aquaculture system. And we weren't listening to the people who were telling us, 'You're taking too many risks, not enough research, not enough regulation.'"

It remains to be seen what effect the influx of Chilean fish will have on the market for Alaska's salmon, but Alaska has made inroads in the market during those four years, stressing the healthier properties of wild fish over farmed, and has made progress in increasing quality with programs that pay fishermen more for bleeding and icing their salmon.

Correction: The March 29 Seawatch stated the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has a "third-party certification program which endorsed Alaska salmon in 2011." Tyson Fick with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says, "It is more accurate to say ASMI contracted with Global Trust to evaluate Alaska's fisheries based on FAO guidelines. (International Organization for Standardization) methodology ensures the process is third party and the FAO-Based Responsible Fisheries Management certification is the only program of its type with ISO accreditation."

The Homer News regrets the error.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.