Alaska Fisheries Report December 2, 2021

On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines, reporter Greg Kim takes us to the Kuskokwim region as residents weigh in on fish management and diversify into crab quota:


Kuskokwim Blues (The overwritten intros are T. Haines, the rest is the work of KYUK’s Greg Kim)

Stock of Concern Intro:

The mighty Kuskokwim River is some 900 miles long, the longest free flowing river in the United States. The network of streams and rivers that drain into it stretches across a region of 48,000 square miles, an area the size of the state of Georgia.

For thousands upon thousands of years the people who lived there were solely responsible for the management of its resources, relying upon knowledge passed down through generations. It’s hard to fault their record. Today the federal government of the United States teams up with the state of Alaska to manage the region’s natural resources, including the one most vital to its residents…salmon. And today salmon stocks in the Kuskokwim are historically low, and local users are asking for a bigger role in their management.


Efforts have been made to more meaningfully include the tribes and communities that rely on Kuskokwim salmon in management decisions. The high water mark of these might be the formation of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 to work toward co-management of the region’s salmon. But to date, groups like the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission remain in advisory roles. State and federal managers can heed their counsel, or ignore it entirely. And the system can seem a bit opaque. KYUK’s Greg Kim has this story about a back and forth between state and local officials at last month’s meeting of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group.


211123 Stock of Concern              Greg Kim                                                                                             GK/KYUK



In a Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting earlier this month, Jim Simon asked state fishery managers a question. Simon is not a working group member but an anthropologist who works for the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission.


Simon: How bad does it have to get for the department to consider making a “stock of concern” designation for Kuskokwim river Chinook salmon, and be ready to do the same for Chum salmon?


Stock of concern is a designation the state uses to say we’re worried about this species of fish.


Linderman: That triggers a development of an action plan to amend or update or change existing regulations that are designed to get out of that stock of concern.


That’s John Linderman, the regional supervisor for the Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic/Yukon/Kuskokwim Region office.


Linderman: Which by and large means that you’re probably going to have to restrict fishing opportunity.


In the state working group meeting, Linderman said the department would be considering whether Kuskokwim Chinook and Chum salmon should receive the stock of concern designation… next year.


Working group member Kevin Whitworth of McGrath asked why wait.


 Whitworth: I’m wondering why you need this extra year of data. Why can’t you just use the past two, three years of data, or traditional knowledge or what we’re seeing here in the river? I think there’s a lot of data now supporting a stock of concern for both chum and Chinook.


Linderman said that another year of data on salmon numbers would help solidify the trends that have been occurring on the Kuskokwim.


Linderman: When you’re evaluating stock concerns, you’re looking at five year timeframes

Linderman: Now, if you think about it in terms of Chum salmon, only two of those years have been a crash three years have not


That does not answer why the department needs to wait another year to evaluate stock of concern designation for Chinook salmon. But Linderman says the criteria for the designation is complicated.


He also told KYUK that the stock of concern designation may not make any real difference in regulations. He said the state has designated both Kuskokwim Chinook and Chum as a stock of concern in the past. He said the state added stricter regulations for the fish back then, and then maintained them even after the state dropped the stock of concern title.


Linderman: Is there much more that can be done, given the status, the current regulations and the history of having regulations put in place to address stocks of concern that are still in play that are still available and in the regulation books? Perhaps.


The federal government has taken over management of the lower Kuskokwim fishery in recent years, which could make stricter state regulations a moot point. But last year, the state announced a fishing opening on their own without the support of federal managers.


The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group requested the state to explain in a later meeting how it determines whether a fish population is a stock of concern.





Boat Traffic Intro:

There is a growing consensus among the fishery management advisory groups on the Kuskokwim that fishing restrictions are not enough to spur the recovery of salmon populations on the river. Here again is Greg Kim with a story about how those groups are now looking at restricting boat traffic in small tributaries where fish spawn to protect the eggs.


211116 Boat Traffic         Greg Kim                                                                                              GK/KYUK



LaMont Albertson used to be a sports fishing guide on the Aniak River for 30 years. Retired now, he watches with concern as guides travel up the narrow, shallow tributaries of the Aniak.


Albertson: We’re concerned that the jet traffic, the several boats that are using those rivers, that are not very wide to begin with, and not very big to begin with, are interfering with the spawning of the salmon.


Sports fishing for salmon has been prohibited on the Kuskokwim and its tributaries in recent years. Albertson’s concern was for the fishing guides’ boat motors damaging fish eggs in shallow streams. Which he expressed in this month’s Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting where Albertson is a member. That group advises state fishery managers.


Albertson proposed a resolution that would temporarily close streams where fish spawn to boat traffic. He wants to protect all fish eggs, not just salmon. His proposed restriction would last for three months between the beginning of June and the end of August.


Albertson: We are not trying to in any way interfere with the moose hunters after September the first or whoever might be out there before June 1.


Albertson was most concerned with the Aniak river’s tributaries. But in the meeting, working Group member Mike Williams Sr., who’s in Akiak, said jet boats disturbed spawning grounds in other tributaries like the Kisaralik or Kwethluk.


Williams: I think we need to look at all of the tributaries here. Because we’re all affected by it.


The state working group unanimously passed a motion to draft a resolution limiting boat traffic in streams on the Kuskokwim where fish spawn. The group would vote on it at a later date once the language is specified. Both Williams and Albertson are also members of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission which advises federal fishery managers. Albertson told KYUK that that group would pursue a similar resolution as well.


Research supports the working group’s assumption that jet boat traffic can damage salmon eggs in spawning grounds. But only in specific conditions. One study conducted in Southwest Alaska almost 30 years ago showed that in extremely shallow streams, less than 9 inches deep, jet boat traffic can destroy nearly all the salmon eggs laid there. But in water between 9 inches and a foot deep, the impact of boat traffic on eggs was much less; less than 20% of eggs were destroyed. Larger boats can cause more damage to eggs.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist Gary Decossas agreed with that study. In an email he wrote quote “the effect of boating on salmon eggs in the tributaries is unlikely unless the river water level is extremely shallow or there is an excessive amount of boats.” He added that jet boats or propeller boats would cause similar damage in shallow waters.


It’s unclear how this restriction on boat traffic would be enforced. Neither the state working group nor the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commision have the legal authority to enforce a restriction on boat traffic. The federal and state governments share management over the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries. Plus, someone would need to identify all the streams where fish spawn. Working Group member Barbara Carlson said this effort would require a patchwork of organizations working together.


Barbara Carlson: Lots of balls to juggle but I think it’s something worth juggling for


The state working group is also trying to reduce salmon bycatch caught in the Bering Sea as another way to protect the fish.




CVRF Crab Intro

The Kuskokwim River empties into Kuskokwim Bay and the Bering Sea. Coastal communities there, like Eek, Chevak, and Goodnews Bay have formed the Coastal Villages Region Fund to take advantage of a federal program that allows communities to hold quota in catch share fisheries to provide income and opportunities for their members. This year, a few months after purchasing a share of the snow crab fishery they learned that managers had determined the stock had crashed, resulting in severe harvest restrictions. Scientists believe warming temperatures had something to do with the crash. KYUK’s Greg Kim talked to biologists and the CVRF to get their reactions.


211124 CVRF Crab           Greg Kim                                                                                              GK/KYUK


In January, the 20 villages that are members of CVRF purchased almost two percent of the snow crab quota in the Bering Sea.


Deakin: We use the word quota to describe that permission to catch fish, or the harvesting rights.

That’s Eric Deakin, CVRF’s CEO. Coastal Villages is one of several groups of communities along the Bering Sea coast that get a share of fisheries from federal waters, known as the “Community Development Quota.”  Deakin said the CVRF fleet had a strong crabbing season last winter, and caught about $3 million dollars’ worth of snow crab.


But last month (october), the state Department of Fish and Game announced some bad news. Next season’s allowable snow crab harvest would be cut by almost 90%…due to a crash in the snow crab population.


Here’s what Deakin’s reaction was.


Deakin: Ouch… Before we did the deal in 2020, the projections were really high that the crab was headed up. And this was a total surprise.


Scientists were surprised too. Here’s Katie Palof, a state biologist who also advises the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.


Palof: We have seen crashes occasionally in other crab stocks. But this is not something that we expected to see in the snow crab stock for any reason. So it was pretty unexpected.


Part of the reason the crash was so unexpected is because biologists hadn’t seen what the snow crab population numbers were since 2019. There were no surveys last year.


Palof: Without having that 2020 data point, because of the pandemic, it’s hard to know between 2019 and when the trawl survey occurred in 2021, as to when that kind of dramatic crash in snow crab happened.


Palof says biologists don’t know for certain what caused the crash in snow crab numbers. A disease could have spread. It could be due to increased predation. But she says biologists’ main hypothesis is that the mass death of snow crabs had something to do with increasing temperatures in the Bering Sea.


Palof: In general, organisms, when the temperature increases, they need more food. And so therefore, potentially, there could be more competition for food.

Palof: We know that, you know, temperature does affect crab growth, food availability, overall ecosystem in general.


Some scientists believe climate change could also be causing salmon numbers in Western Alaska to decline.


CVRF communities also purchased King crab quota earlier this year. The population of King crab has been depressed for years. Scientists believe that’s possibly due to climate change as well .


Without knowing exactly what caused so many snow crabs to disappear, Palof says it’s unclear whether the population will rebound or remain depressed.


But CVRF CEO Eric Deakin is optimistic about crab numbers and their member villages’ recent purchase of crab quota.


Deakin: We’re long term investors. It is a shame that those assets won’t be putting off any cash next year, and maybe the year after, but it will come back. We’re confident crab stocks will recover.


He said villages within CVRF don’t have to worry about a few years of unprofitability. Although CVRF villages purchased the crab quota, valued at around 35 million dollars, Deakin says CVRF guaranteed the loan using its CDQ resources.


Deakin: We’d be on the hook to write that check for the guarantee that we made to the bank, not the villages. So they put no money down to get the loans and they can’t lose money in the program.


Deakin said CVRF has tens of millions of dollars in the bank from good fishing years to cover shortfalls like this one.











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