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Day 1: Notes from the Bristol Bay Board of Fish meeting

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Izzy Ross
/
KDLG
Fish and Game's west side commercial fisheries manager, Tim Sands, talks to other staff on the first day of the meeting. Nov. 29, 2022.

The 2022 Board of Fish Bristol Bay meeting is underway from Nov. 29 - Dec. 3 at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. KDLG's Izzy Ross is at the meeting. Here are her notes.

Find proposals, changes and department reports on the board's website by clicking here.

Stream live audio or video of the meeting here.

Day one started out with staff reports from the Department of Fish and Game’s commercial, sport and subsistence divisions.

King salmon management overview

The department gave an overview of its king salmon management. Managers said repeatedly that counting kings at the Nushagak River sonar is challenging, because the sonar was designed to count sockeye, not kings. A sonar has been used at the Portage Creek site on the Nushagak since 1979 to measure how many salmon swim up the river. The counts that come from the sonar are an index, not a complete count.

Research Biologist Jordan Head walked through the state’s efforts to see whether that index is reliable.

“Over the course of four years, the department was able to take about 1,000 king salmon and record how they swam through the river at the sonar site. So for example, some fish migrated up to banks and swim through both the test fishing area and the sonar and they were available to be counted. However, others migrated through the middle of the river where they were unavailable to be captured in the test fishery or counted in the sonar. We were able to look at the migration patterns from all of these tags and put together what I would describe as a heat map.”

West Side Management Biologist Tim Sands touched on statewide king trends. He also said there was underreporting of kings on fish tickets.

“The last six years have seen sockeye salmon returns averaging close to three times as large as the previous 20-year average. Statewide, king salmon populations have declined approximately 30% over the last decade. The less productive regime of king salmon could be exacerbating our problems here. Large sockeye salmon returns in the last six years have met that Wood River’s 100,000 trigger is being achieved earlier than ever, forcing management to find a balance between king and sockeye salmon escapement. Small king returns in recent years compound this issue.”

Sands called commercial fisheries management in the Nushagak a balancing act between sockeye and king runs.

“We continually strive to find balance in the management of these stocks. Certainly, we have missed harvest opportunity on sockeye salmon in an effort to protect king salmon. Yet more work needs to be done to meet king salmon goals. Record strong and relatively early sockeye salmon returns along with later run timing on smaller king salmon returns and has complicated management. Total king return since 2017 has been poor despite strong parent-year escapement. In 2022, we could have foregone harvest on 22 million sockeye salmon and still failed to meet the 95,000 in-river goal as enumerated at the sonar. We want to emphasize that king salmon are a stock management concern. And while we believe the run is very sustainable, we feel that additional management tools and clear direction are needed for these stocks to successfully coexist to maintain a robust fishery going forward.”

Discussion highlights

Board member John Wood talked about the forces at play in decisions about sockeye and king management

“What my concern is, and I think… that the board has to be sensitive to it, is that the sockeye economic impact in that region is substantially more so than the kings. And even though we try to protect against that creeping into decision making, just by human nature it will. And we need to somehow have the plan: Here is the situation under all scenarios. If the sockeye run is extremely strong, the kings are extremely weak, here's what the department shouldn't be doing, etc. And that's just my perspective. It seems a simpler approach.”

Chair Märit Carlson-Van Dort asked why commercial king salmon harvests were underreported. Manager Tim Sands answered:

“So there's the price of sockeye salmon is $1.15 a pound this year, the price of king salmon is 25 cents. When there were a lot more big king salmon, they were easier to pull out and separate from the rest of the fish. And you needed to because they can't pump the big king salmon. So there's various reasons why the fishermen don't sort them at the time of delivery as they're supposed to. And so then the production numbers: We can go and get the numbers and the processors and they because they have to say how many they actually processed. They can’t sell king salmon as a sockeye salmon. So when they do the production, they have the numbers separate. That's what we're getting. We just started getting this information the last couple of years.”

Carlson Van-Dort: “So I'm hearing for a variety of reasons, the fishermen may choose not to report correctly. That is unacceptable. As far as I'm concerned, this responsibility, the privilege of the permit. Just put a little two cents on the record there.”

Board member John Wood asked about how the department would verify how reliable the Nushagak sonar's index is.

“Member Carpenter and I were out there this summer, and you have some very sophisticated gear, the people are extremely well qualified. But even under the best of circumstances, you're missing by those kinds of percentages. And it seems to me what I heard you say, correct me if I'm wrong, is that the way that you verified that was by doing a tagging of 1,000 fish, I assume that was back in 2011, and watched how they traveled through the system. Each year would you not have to do the same exercise to establish what the percentages for that year’s run as well, since it changes so dramatically?"

Jordan Head: “Through the Chair, yes, Mr. Wood, that would be the case, if we wanted to know exactly the proportion of kings that the sonar was counting each and every year. Cost prohibits that, for one. And then there's other tools that we've been looking into that could maybe shed some light on which I'll go over in the next presentation.”

One of those other tools is a run reconstruction model. I caught up with Head after the meeting to hear what that means.

Run reconstruction

Research biologist Jordan Head presented a king salmon run reconstruction model. After the meeting, Head sat down with KDLG to explain what that means.

Research biologist Jordan Head talks about the king salmon run reconstruction.

Board member Tom Carpenter asked about comparing aerial surveys to sonar counts.

Both board member McKenzie Mitchell and Carlson-Van Dort asked what indications the sport fish division uses when issuing Emergency Orders. Borden said they rely on a variety of information, including subsistence and sport harvests. Borden also said the strength of the restrictions depend on how the run shapes up.

Nushagak king salmon action plan

One of the liveliest discussions was about the draft action plan to protect Nushagak king salmon. The department worked on the plan for just one month before publishing it last week. It presented the draft to the board on Tuesday afternoon.

Several times during the meeting, the department said it needed guidance from the board and the board said it wanted insight from the department.

Discussion highlights

Board member John Wood asked a question about the criteria for removing the stock of concern status from Nushagak kings, also called delisting.

Wood: “If we have a stock of concern on a stock, why would we want to base a delisting based on it reaching a lower bound rather than mid-range or something of that nature?”

Jordan Head: “Through the chair: The lower bound was chosen because we’re in a time of productivity in king salmon statewide that is much lower than when these plans were developed. We think the lower bound of the goal is sustainable. It may not provide as much yield as the midpoint or higher end goal, but it is a sustainable criteria. And when the in-river goal was developed, it was developed to meet the escapement goal and provide reasonable opportunity for subsistence and sport fish. And so as part of delisting, we would say if we're meeting the goal and providing reasonable opportunity for sport, fishing and subsistence, then that would be a criteria for delisting.”

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent Lang pointed out that the department wrote the action plan within a month.

Vincent Lang: “Staff did an amazing job in getting this out a week before the meeting. And it’s one of the shortfalls of having a regulatory meeting within a month after a designation of a stock of concern. So I want to give staff credit here. Are there things in here like delisting – That’s up to the board…..that’s your call. You could decide that you want to do lists based on the in-river goal, you could decide if you want to base it on some average use above that, that’s your call. We’re pointing out that it's appropriate to have a delisting criteria as part of the action plan. So we know we can come back to you at that when those criteria are met."

Here’s Board member Wood’s response:

“I had expected when you would come back with an action plan that you would have, here's what we suggest or advise doing for an action plan. Now having reflected on it, anything that you would advise would be allocative in nature, so that wouldn't be justification for you to say, ‘Hey, it's in your ballpark board, it’s outside of ours.’

But it leaves us in a dilemma. For instance, your first example, you went through one through six. Six was to close the fishery altogether. One was keep the status quo. So the way I read that, is we could take action suggestions of a two through five do any combination thereof, not knowing how one relates to the other and what impact having one or more involved in the same action plan might have? I don't know how you go about doing it. But I would like the department to tell me, ‘Here is an action plan that we believe best equipped to get the stock back up to the level it needs to be and put the allocation question all the way off to the side. I don't know how to go about doing that. But that's what I'd like to see done.”

Vincent-Lang: There are a couple considerations with this action plan together. We're rushing to get it out there. But there's a bunch of board proposals that you have that have potential implications with this action plan. So if we were to come back with four recommendations, especially on those board proposals that had significant allocative implications, we would have been taking positions on those allocation calls on those proposals. So it was a fine line that we were walking. But clearly, what we want to do is outline or identify the range of options that you have as a board to address this conservation, this management concern. And hopefully you have enough of them on your plate right now. That is, is you ask us questions, you'll be able to select the right ones that you want to use in

Research and a path forward

The draft also includes a research plan.

Board member Tom Carpenter asked when the framework to get more data will be available. Head said they had no firm date.

Commissioner Vincent-Lang said the department is probably four to five years away from getting data that will give them confidence in its ability to count king salmon.

Vincent-Lang: "So really the question that you're facing with this action plan is, how do you precautionarily managed between sockeye and kings until we get those better count numbers coming in? And you have a couple of decision points based on what I heard. One is, you have to decide on the 100,000 trigger for sockeye for that system, and then you just have to decide how much sockeye you want to forego to protect some number of kings. You have the information in front of you, it's just how you want to make those decisions, as you recall, because they're very allocative."

Carpenter: That was exactly what I was going to get at. As you know, we're being tasked here to look at several proposals and then also this action plan. We have to formulate this management plan or deal with these proposals without knowing what the potential outcome is going to be on how to actually enumerate these kings in a reasonable manner for the long term. So it becomes a little bit tricky, but I think you gave me a little clearer direction and timeline. So I'll take that into consideration."

Board member Mike Heimbuch also weighed in:

“We have really poor assessment tools right now for king salmon, we've talked extensively about run reconstruction. So we're going to be in a holding pattern, simply because of the seven year lifespan of king salmon, we don't know what's going to happen. We're going to be continually in a mode of run reconstruction. And we are going to have no choice if we want to do that but to take away red salmon out of the commercial fishing timeframe. It's very clear those couple slides that show the confluence of the run timing, make it very clear if we're going to do meaningful changes in king salmon escapement but we'll have to be fairly significant if we have any kind of an entry pattern into the Nushagak that reflect what's been going on the last four years. So it's pretty clear.”

Commissioner Vincent-Lang also said the department was working to find money for assessments to research king salmon in salt water:

"We're focusing those efforts right now on the Yukon and Kenai River. Because there's some new technologies out there, especially with respect to juvenile salmon. We really don't have a very good picture of what's happening to salmon after they emerge from the gravel, from the eggs and get down to saltwater. We have a pretty good idea what's happening in that saltwater area initially when they hit the ocean. That's a concern to us. But we really don't have any idea what's happening at that life stage. So, new technology in the Columbia River that made available to have some very small tags that we can actually measure the movement patterns of fish as they move down river, especially smolts and juveniles and also what the survival rates are. So we have that gravel-to-gravel assessment and we're talking to the governor's office about it right now. And we're also looking at talking to our congressional delegation about finding money for those types of assessments."

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.
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