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Board of Fish to consider 15 options to protect Bristol Bay's Nushagak king salmon runs

Board members day 1.JPG
Izzy Ross
/
KDLG
Board of Fisheries Chair Märit Carlson-Van Dort speaks during a staff report on the first day of the board's 2022 Bristol Bay meeting. Nov. 29, 2022.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game published a draft plan last week to address the struggling Nushagak king salmon run.

At the statewide Bristol Bay finfish meeting this week, the Board of Fish will decide which of those tools to put into an action plan. There could be significant restrictions to fishing in the Nushagak District, and that could have widespread impacts on the entire fishery.

The Nushagak River is on the west side of the commercial fishery. It’s the last place in Bristol Bay where the state still counts king salmon. In recent years, sockeye runs have boomed while king runs have dropped. That’s created a problem for managers, who are tasked with providing fishing opportunity for sockeye and controlling that escapement while also preserving the kings.

The plan organizes potential actions into three sections: Commercial, sport and subsistence.

The actions range from continuing management under the status quo to closing the fishery until a certain date. The department lists the benefits and downsides of each action. The commercial fishing division says several of its recommendations could protect kings but that fishermen would lose out economically. It also says some actions could push fishermen into other districts in the fishery.

In October, the state designated Nushagak king salmon as a stock of concern because it has failed to meet the in-river goal of 95,000 fish for five of the last six years. This action plan is the result of that listing. If the king salmon run meets its minimum escapement goal for three years in a row and is expected to continue, the department can remove the designation.

The public will have the chance to weigh in on the plan during the Board of Fish meeting, which started today at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. The meeting is also livestreamed.

Commercial fishing actions

Action 1

The first action is the status quo, so Fish and Game would continue to manage the fishery under the current regulations. The department says that without additional guidelines, this sets its management up for failure to either keep sockeye within its escapement range or meet king escapement.

Action 2

Action 2 would let managers open sockeye fishing in the Wood River Special Harvest Area and close fishing in the Nushagak District to protect the king runs. The department says that would control the Wood’s sockeye escapement and protect kings. But the Wood River area is small and hard to access, so this change could push would-be Nushagak fishermen into other parts of the fishery, and those who stayed would have less opportunity.

Action 3

Action 3 would create an optimum escapement goal for Nushagak River sockeye. It would allow managers to restrict early season fishing. Those restrictions would increase incrementally based on the forecast. The goal is to balance restrictions to protect kings with an upper-end goal to control the Nushagak River’s sockeye population.

The department says this would let the department tailor its management to conserve kings while controlling the sockeye run, but that fishermen would lose out economically.

Action 4

Action 4 would reduce the mesh size and net length for Nushagak gillnets. Right now, mesh size is restricted to 5.5 inches. This action would shrink that to 4.75 inches.

That could increase sockeye harvest by netting more of the smaller fish and could reduce fishing time.

Under existing regulations, drift fishermen can use 150 fathoms and dual permit holders can use 200 fathoms, while set netters can use 50.

The department says the commissioner would decide on the new length and that shorter nets would reduce both king and sockeye harvest.

It also said this action means that fishermen who didn’t have the smaller size would have to buy new nets or fish in another district.

Action 5

Action 5 would cut down on fishing areas and times in June. It would let the department use emergency ordinances to reduce the fishing area for drift boats and reduce fishing time for both drifters and set netters. The time reductions would be lifted after July 1.

The department says this would let more kings swim past the fleet and upriver. But shrinking the fishing area could mean more crowded fishing and would make it harder to control sockeye escapement.

Action 6

Action 6 would close the district to commercial fishing until July 1, except for set netting in the Igushik section. That closure would last until the king run is projected to exceed its in-river goal or until it exceeds its minimum escapement goal.

This action would most effectively protect the king runs, the department says, although it would also make it difficult to control sockeye escapement and allow many sockeye to go unharvested.

Sport fishing actions

The king salmon sport fishery is open in the lower Nushagak River and above the Iowithla from May through July. It’s closed to sport fishing for kings above Harris Creek. Anglers harvested an average of 5,933 kings annually between 2016 - 2020.

The sport fishing division is grappling with how to conserve kings and also provide reliable opportunities for sport fishermen who may plan their fishing trips months or years in advance.

The department says changes to sport fishing regulations, like actions 3 and 4, would provide the most stable situation because the fishermen would know what to expect.

Action 1

This action would maintain the status quo, under which managers use emergency orders to reduce the bag limit for Nushagak kings or prohibit sport fishermen from keeping kings at all.

Action 2

Action 2 would reduce the bag limit as well as the bag or annual limit for fish larger than 20 inches. The department says this would give more protection to the king run while still allowing for some fishing, but that setting this in regulation would constrain managers if the king run was stronger than expected.

Action 3

Action 3 would create a catch-and-release king sport fishery in the Nushagak drainage where fishermen couldn’t keep kings and couldn’t use bait to catch them.

Action 4

Action 4 would restrict the time and area for king salmon sport fishing. That means opening the fishery later in the season, limiting fishing to specific days of the week, closing certain areas, or any combination of those options.

Action 5

This would close the sport fishing for kings in the Nushagak drainage and prohibit the use of bait.

The department says setting a fishery closure into regulation would lift the sport fishing pressure on the king run. But it means the department wouldn’t be able to ease those restrictions if the run did meet its escapement goals.

Subsistence fishery actions

There are no limits restricting subsistence fishing for kings in the Nushagak District. Subsistence fishing has the highest priority in the state and isn’t restricted until the sport fishery has been closed.

According to the department, subsistence harvest of kings in Bristol Bay makes up about 12% of the total subsistence catch of all salmon species. On average, the annual subsistence harvest of kings for the Nushagak Drainage is 12,433, according to data collected between 2015–2019. State managers say that several of the proposed actions may increase the number of kings that make it up the river, but it would limit subsistence opportunities, and the restrictions may be confusing.

Action 1

This would maintain the existing regulations, under which subsistence fishing is open with no restrictions. The manager can close subsistence through an emergency order, but this hasn’t happened in recent years. The department says this would provide clarity to those subsistence fishing in the area. While keeping the subsistence fishery open may contribute to king salmon declines, it says that impact would probably be minimal.

Action 2

Action 2 would limit how many kings each subsistence fisher could harvest on the Nushagak River.

This would limit king harvests while still allowing for some subsistence fishing. While it might increase the run’s size, the department says it might not provide enough opportunity for subsistence fishermen.

Action 3

Action 3 would reduce fishing time during the king season by one day increments.

If the runs are low, this would cut down on subsistence fishing times in the district, including on Dillingham’s beaches and the Wood River to Red Bluff. The department says that could increase the run up the river, but that it might not allow enough opportunity for subsistence fishing.

Action 4

Under Action 4, the area manager could close certain areas to subsistence fishing.

The department says that could increase the run up the river, but that it might “be confusing, create conflict, and limit subsistence opportunity.”

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.