Please God – Save The Kings: Nobody Else Seems To Be Trying!

by Dave Cannon

Have you ever heard the saying, “God save the queen”? That’s actually Britain’s National Anthem written sometime in the 18th Century. Well, someone needs to step in here in the Kuskokwim because the majority of the decision makers aren’t doing the right thing by our king salmon. What we have going on in the Kuskokwim River is a consummate example of the pay me now or pay me later quandary.

Here’s what the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) said in a news release dated Thursday the 29th: Tribal, State, and Federal partners are working together to strike a balance between providing subsistence opportunities now and ensuring long-term sustainability of Chinook for future generations. The timing of harvest is critical to allow enough Chinook to reach spawning grounds. Although delayed later than normal, we are certain that in the coming weeks subsistence opportunities will be provided while minimizing harm to Chinook.

I’m sorry, but the FWS cannot ensure anything at this point in time! They surely don’t instill or ensure my confidence in them because not only aren’t they minimizing harm to the Chinook…they’re causing it. For sure they’re not ensuring long-term sustainability!

Last Wednesday, the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group passed a motion to not have any subsistence openings until Monday the 3rd – this was in regards to the acknowledgement by both the FWS and ADF&G that the minimum drainage-wide escapement goal of 65,000 kings would likely not be met.

Yet on Friday, the FWS met with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC) and both agreed to have an opening the very next day – Saturday – and then ANOTHER on Monday the 3rd. Astoundingly, it was brought up in the deliberations how the lower end of the escapement goal wouldn’t be attained!

The FWS’s justification for these openings is that there are more chum and sockeye in the river now, so they’ll tend to fill up the nets and “minimize” the king catch. That’s a tool used by managers during a normal year as the king run starts to wind down…but we are not in a normal year. Using it in a year like this is misguided – it only just justifies their irrational decision to allow additional harvest of a dwindling king run.

Another tool used by managers to minimize harvest – in this instance on kings – is to limit the amount of time fishers can fish…which sounds reasonable. Past openings have been 12-hours while Saturday’s was reduced to only six (Monday’s will be the usual 12). The problem with that tactic is that in most any opening (especially on a Saturday), the bulk of fish are harvested in the first few hours which negates the justification.

Just this past week, an ADF&G manager said this about the significance of meeting escapement…or not meeting it: “If one year of escapement is not met for Chinook salmon in the Kuskokwim River Drainage, it’s unlikely to be detrimental to the viability of the Chinook population. Now, if we miss the goal several years in a row, that could probably be problematic.”

We may not have had several years in a row of not meeting escapement, but this is the second time in five years we haven’t…and we’ve been experiencing a general downward trend of late.

What comes to mind here is what the National Research Council determined to be a major factor in the drastic decline of the salmon of the Pacific Northwest. “The social structures and institutions that have been operating in the Pacific Northwest have proved incapable of ensuring a long –term future for the salmon – in large part because they do not operate at the right time and space scales.”

Here’s what a book titled Sustainable Fisheries Management: Pacific Salmon stated when it was published in 2000: “The importance of reducing harvest rates in mixed stock areas in years of poor returns cannot be overemphasized. Management must be based on inseason assessments of run strength. Preseason forecasts might be available for specific stocks, but they have not proven reliable enough for effective abundance-based management given the natural variability in survivals and returns and the need to reduce harvest rates for maintaining escapements when runs are smaller than expected.

To put the seriousness of this year’s low numbers into perspective, here’s an example from that same book that shows how sometimes the managers get it wrong – often because of pressures to keep fishing when the numbers say otherwise: “An example of such a downward trend is the Klamath River chinook salmon, well documented in the beginning of its negative spiral by Fraidenburg and Lincoln. As of 1978, the first year for which basin-wide escapements estimates were available, the escapement goal was 115,000 spawners. In response to drought and overfishing, the Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a 1980 “interim” escapement goal of 86,000 to prevent disruption of troll fisheries and cited a commitment to return to the original goal within four years. By 1983, PFMC had, in response to cries of economic hardship from user groups, adjusted the inriver run size target to 68,900 (escapement plus inriver catch!) and the rebuilding schedule was lengthened to sixteen years. Over the past few years, the escapement floor has been reduced to 35,000 with inriver run size targets set annually….While this case provides an excellent example of how politics has influenced salmon management, it also illustrates HOW SCIENTISTS AND MANAGERS SOMETIMES PARTICIPATE IN REGULATING A FISHERY INTO OVERFISHING.”

Many things in life are merely a matter of scale, and unfortunately, that is also what’s going on here in Kuskokwim…our institutions are failing the kings. The mismanagement that we are experiencing may not jeopardize the viability of the king population (but it might!), it likely will jeopardize the sustainability of the subsistence king salmon fishery…this is where the pay me now or pay me later comes into play.

Consequently, the king salmon of the Kuskokwim don’t have the luxury to wait for the managers and the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to get it right the second time or third time. Some concerned over the future of the run have said that every king counts. Well, it’s unrealistic to say that one fish not making the spawning grounds will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but you remove enough of them by overfishing and we will all pay the price. The sad reality is, we’ve already removed too many prior to Saturday and Monday’s openings.

Are the agencies and KRITFC the only ones at fault? No – there’s been intense public pressure to allow fishing. The pictures I’ve been seeing on Facebook clearly show that a good proportion of people up and down the river haven’t done too badly (in fact quite well)…but yet I still hear some of them say they want more. For the sake of the kings, people (and KRITFC) need to understand the difference between a want and a need.

Since the agencies seem to fall in line lately with KRITFC’s recommendations, here’s what KRITFC can do for the benefit of the fish and the fishermen they represent. First and foremost, inform the citizenry how important the weir projects are to determine how successful a given year’s management was (or in this case wasn’t). More importantly, they need to instill how weirs are the best tools to assess the condition of the runs over time.

Over the past few years, KRITFC has brought representatives of Washington state’s Nisqually Tribe, including the late Billy Frank, to the region; Nisqually means “people of the river”. Billy Frank knew the importance of weirs because the Nisually operates several of them. What are our weirs showing us? Although they’ve only been in a few weeks, they’re substantiating what the sonar and test fish projects showed three weeks ago – a very poor return…maybe the lowest on record.

The ultimate question is, how many years like this can the king population take? What I see is a similar situation in the coming years and everyone pointing the finger at the bycatch out in the ocean or something beyond our local control.

For God sakes, let’s all do the right thing now for the kings…if it isn’t already way too late.

Dave Cannon is a fish biologist residing in Aniak, AK.