Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 4:36 PM on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Inletkeeper asks how in-river conditions affect king salmon

Cook Inletkeeper has submitted comments following the recent chinook salmon symposium hosted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that addressed an issue many commercial salmon fishermen also have raised: Why does ADF&G appear to be largely ignoring in-river conditions when searching for answers to the decline of king salmon populations?

The symposium, held Oct. 22 and 23 in Anchorage, was intended to identify and discuss knowledge gaps that might shed some light on the declines, and look at ways to fill those gaps.

It included scientific presentations and panel discussions with experts from private, state, federal and academic backgrounds on the current status of chinook salmon stocks in Alaska and what kind of information is needed to better understand and respond to the recent declines.

Titles of the presentations provide a glimpse of the ocean-centric nature of the discussion, such as "Insights into salmon ecology and production dynamics through nearshore marine surveys," "Ecology of Alaska chinook salmon in the open ocean," and "Chinook salmon insights from marine ecosystem monitoring in Southeast Alaska."

In a letter sent to Eric Volk, chief anadromous fisheries scientist for Fish and Game, and Robert Clark, chief fisheries scientist for the sportfish division, Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper noted that knowledge gap analysis at the symposium "largely fails to address the loss and degradation of fresh water habitats as a factor in wild Alaska salmon run strength, productivity and overall population health."

Shavelson also brings up the lack of enforcement of existing laws designed to protect salmon habitat, with direct examples such as gravel pit pollution that Cook Inletkeeper has documented and reported to Fish and Game on a tributary of the Anchor River, and Fish and Game's issuance of what he described as "illegal permits" allowing Hilcorp to mine boulders and fill a salmon stream in the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area "so industry could resume oil storage at the base of an active volcano."

The letter notes that it is clearly important and necessary to "confront our 'black box' understanding of salmon in the ocean, where we have little or no idea what truly affects salmon fitness or survivorship. By-catch, climate change and ocean acidification are but a few of the more pressing issues needing more research and management attention."

However, it notes that those issues are only part of the equation, and that we know the loss and degradation of freshwater salmon habitat will directly impact wild salmon productivity and sustainability.

These are issues that commercial salmon fishermen have been bringing up for years, especially in the Kenai River, and have been frustrated by the seeming ability of sport fishing groups to take the focus off of in-river issues such as catch-and-release mortality, targeting of the largest fish and thereby removing that genetic stock, and the habitat damage caused by hundreds of boat wakes daily.

In a letter to the editor printed in the Peninsula Clarion decrying the Kenai River Classic, the annual king salmon tournament, fisherman Robert Tepp helped sum it up:

"For several years, the Mat-Su Valley has had at least one person on the Board of Fish," he writes. "Why is this? The stacking of the Board for the guide industry has insulated them from any scrutiny as to why our early and late-run king salmon have disappeared. Recently, a guide industry spokesman blamed the weather along with some other 'fishermen' somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean for the problem. It's interesting that the spokesperson had plenty of blame for everyone else, but never once mentioned their role in the disappearance of our kings. Amazingly, there was not one in-river problem mentioned. However, lots of other industries seemed to be causing problems for the kings: logging, mining, commercial fishing or the oil industry, but not the commercial guide industry. The guides and 'Kenai Classic' participants use gasoline engines and they lose lead sinkers, plastic lures and plastic lines into the ecosystem as several hundred boats per day churn up the pathway to the kings' spawning grounds. Don't forget catch-and-release and slot limits."

While the state-wide decline in king salmon stocks do point to a systemic problem in the marine environment, the only common denominator for all king salmon from all river systems, many commercial salmon fishermen are wondering if the dramatic crash of the Kenai River run might point to the need for a closer look at the in-river conditions for that particular run.

Shavelson and Cook Inletkeeper are also inviting people to sign their petition calling on state and local governments to "Enforce existing water quality protection laws and rules to ensure healthy salmon habitat and ensure adequate riparian setbacks and intact river systems to maintain the habitat functions and values salmon need to survive."

The petition can be found at http://inletkeeper.org/get_involved/protect-cook-inlet-wild-salmon-habitiat-petition/.

The European Union's fisheries commission has finally joined a fight championed by the late senator Ted Stevens to fight Illegal, Under-reported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing, like the Russian king crab poaching that has cost the Alaskan fleet millions of dollars, on a global scale.

Stevens and his ally, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), introduced legislation in 2008 that closed loopholes in U.S. law that allow IUU fishing, strengthened U.S. fisheries law enforcement programs, and assisted developing countries with fisheries monitoring and enforcement.

The European Commission issued warnings to eight countries, Belize, Cambodia, Fiji, Guinea, Panama, Sri Lanka, Togo and Vanuatu, and suggested a plan of action for each.

The commission has not yet taken further action, but warned that the countries could be identified as "non-cooperative" in fighting IUU, a first for the commission and the EU.

"Should the situation not improve, the EU could take further steps, which could entail trade measures such as a ban on selling fisheries products to the EU," the commission said in a statement.

The EU is the world's largest single importer of seafood, and estimates the global value of IUU fishing is approximately 10 billion Euro, ($12.8 billion U.S.) per year, and accounts for 15 percent of fish sold in the EU.

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