On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines:
SITKA SALMON DERBY ROBERT WOOLSEY KCAW
Sitka Salmon Derby officials were hoping to see some larger fish in this year’s contest – and they may have gotten their wish.
The top fish after three days of fishing came in at 40 pounds, 2 ounces – the largest king in the derby since 2016.
The big king was landed by Savanah Plank. She was fishing with her husband and two boys near Middle Island on Sunday when the fish hit. Plank said the king “did what salmon do.”
“He peeled a bunch of lines three times and then we got him up to the boat,” said Plank. “He never jumped or came out of the water. We couldn’t really tell how big he was until we got him in the net.”
Plank said her guess at the time was that the fish weighed around 30 pounds, but she’d never caught one more than 20 pounds or so in her four years fishing in the Sitka Derby, and then growing up in Ketchikan before that. As it was their last pass of the day, they pulled their gear and headed into the weigh station.
Despite the beautiful weather, fishing was not exactly red hot over the Memorial Day weekend. Winner or no, Plank was happy to see her family’s efforts yield results.
“You know, I was just so excited to have a fish to enter, honestly,” said Plank. “If we win, that’s a total bonus. But of course I hope he holds out for a win, and that would be nice. But it’s just fun doing it. We just love derby time.”
Plank says that this is the first time she’s been on the derby leaderboard. Last year she won a hidden weight prize which netted $500. If this 40-pounder remains in the lead after next weekend’s fishing, it will win her over $5,000 in prize money, and a slew of other cash and prizes donated by Sitka businesses – including her own, the Sitka Bulk Goods store.
Currently in second place is Riley Bernhardt, with a 33-pound 5 ounce fish – which is just three ounces lighter than last year’s winner. Bernhardt also leads in overall poundage landed after the first three days, with 127 pounds 9 ounces. If his success continues through next weekend, Bernhardt could collect $500 for first place in total poundage.
You can see a list of the top ten leaders in the 67th Annual Sitka Salmon Derby on our website, kcaw.org.
Early Kenai Kings Sabine Poux KDLL
The Kenai River king salmon run opened to anglers on June 1.
But anglers won’t be allowed to keep kings. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says recent estimates aren’t looking great for the run and anglers will be restricted to catch and release only. The early run also opened under catch and release in 2019 and 2018.
The optimal escapement goal for the fishery is between 3,900 and 6,600 fish. And this run so far is reminiscent of the 2020 run, when just 2,444 total kings cleared the sonar.”
Fish and Game Sportfish Area Manager Colton Lipka says, as of Sunday, only 72 large king salmon had passed through the sonar in Soldotna. That’s 200 fewer than the same time last year.
“Right now we’re looking at a very slow start. This is one of the lowest starts that we’ve had, similar to 2020 as far as counts and timing.”
2020 was one of the department’s lower years on record.
And Lipka says most of the indicators this time around are suggesting a weak run this year, as well.
That said, it’s still early for the fishery. And there is time for the run to pick up.
“I mean, the fish will show up. It’s just a matter of how many. We could just be looking at a late year so these numbers could increase in short order. But if they don’t, our next step would actually be closure of the fishery.”
The catch-and-release limitation isn’t an unusual step for the department to take.
Lipka says, last year, the department opened under general regulations, allowing anglers to take one king a day, before switching to catch-and-release restrictions in June. Midway through the 2020 early run, the department closed the fishery altogether.
“This year, we’re being a little more proactive as far as recognizing this run is off to a pretty slow start.’
Lipka says 2017 was the last time the department eased up on restrictions midway through the season amid an improved outlook.
He says the next step after catch-and-release only is the complete closure of the fishery. His department will be watching to determine whether that’s the step it needs to take.
Also watching closely are the Kenai River fishing guides who rely on anglers for business.
Ray DeBardelaben is president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and guides sport fishermen from his Soldotna business, Long Live the Kings.
He says he’s grateful the department’s taking steps to protect the kings amid a downward trend for the species.
“It’s been ongoing statewide actually for many years now. And so we’re kind of prepared to have plan B and plan C.”
DeBardelaben says most Kenai River guides have diversified their businesses to account for the change in kings.
He says halibut fishing, for example, is saving his business. He also takes anglers out on the Kasilof River, where they can catch and retain hatchery-produced kings this year.
And he says many other guides have taken similar steps. Others, he says, have given up on the fishery altogether.
“The guiding numbers are definitely way down compared to what they were. Some people who just didn’t want to diversify just quit doing it.”
DeBardelaben says he’ll be OK this year. He’s been in the business for three decades. But he says newer guides might feel the effects of limitations and closures much more.
The late Kenai king run, which is more popular than the early run, starts in July. That’s also slated to open up under catch-and-release restrictions.
Anglers under catch-and-release can use one single-hook, unbaited artificial lure to catch kings. Any kings they do catch they must release immediately.
Smelt Audio Postcard Anna Rose MacArthur KYUK
Earlier this week [05/24], small crowds gathered at the Bethel sea wall to harvest smelt with dip nets. The small, silver fish usually run past Bethel for about three days. They are the first anadromous [ah-NAH-dra-mus] fish to travel from the Bering Sea up the Kuksokwim River each season. And their arrival marks the beginning of the Kuskokwim summer fishing season. KYUK’s Elyssa Loughlin [AH-liss-ah LOCK-lin] was at the Bethel seawall and brings us this audio postcard.
State sued by federal government over subsistence priority Terry Haines
The federal government is suing the state of Alaska. Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang has been named in the suit, along with his whole department. The fed is suing to force the state to prioritize the needs of rural subsistence harvesters of fish, particularly those who harvest chinook and chum salmon along the Kuskokwim river.
In its introduction the lawsuit states: QUOTE “The United States brings this action against the State of Alaska to protect subsistence use of the Kuskokwim River Chinook and chum salmon populations by local rural residents who depend on these salmon for their physical, economic, traditional, and
cultural existence. The United States seeks a declaration … that the State’s actions in contravention of a rural Alaskan subsistence priority are preempted by federal law and are therefore unlawful.”
In 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was signed into law. ANILCA dedicated over 43 million acres of land in Alaska to public use by making them National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, Wild and Scenic rivers, or National Forests. It also officially recognized the lands granted to native corporations by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and specifically prioritized the subsistence needs of rural Alaskans over other resource users. And so, in 1982 the Alaska Board of Fisheries and Game enacted regulations that created a rural subsistence priority, in compliance with ANILCA.
But the state stopped prioritizing subsistence users in 1989, after the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that such a preference was contrary to the Alaska Constitution, which guarantees equal access to all Alaskans.
The federal government disagreed then too, but as long as there was plenty of fish for everyone, it was a moot point. And the fed does not possess the resources for in-season management. The state does the actual on-the-ground management of Alaska’s fisheries, and this presents a potential regulatory conflict when fish become scarce, as salmon have in the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages. For example, in June 2021 the state opened the lower Kuskokwim to gill net fishermen, while the fed simultaneously declared it closed to protect the resource for rural users.
At a meeting of the Federal Subsistence Board on March 29 residents living on the Yukon River asked the federal government to wrest management of their salmon fisheries from the state. The Temporary Special Action Request was filed with the Board by a resident of Rampart, the Holy Cross Tribe, the Native Village of Eagle, and a resident of Huslia. They asked the Board to uphold the provision in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that prioritizes rural subsistence use by closing the 2022 salmon fisheries in their region to all but qualified rural subsistence users.
The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has declared its support for the federal lawsuit. Their Interim Director, Kevin Whitworth, said QUOTE “The fish commission is heartened to see the federal government basically stand up to protect salmon and the importance of federal management”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Law said the state’s management is sound, and based on science and input from local stakeholders.