What's behind recommendations for the state's Nushagak king salmon stock of concern action plan
The statewide Board of Fisheries meeting is underway in Anchorage. The board will decide whether and how to change fishing regulations in Bristol Bay’s Nushagak District to protect its faltering king salmon runs.
On the first day of the meeting, staff with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game presented its draft action plan to the board, which includes a suite of options to restrict and close commercial, sport and subsistence fishing into the Nushagak District in order to conserve kings.
The department also touched on recommendations from a third party — the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute's king salmon committee — which submitted a proposal to change the district's longstanding king management plan as well as recommendations for the state's action plan. That plan includes both triggers and optimum escapement goals. Department of Fish and Game Staff explained that triggers determine when the fleets start fishing, and optimum escapement goals dictate how they fish once the district is open.
On Saturday morning board members indicated that another revision to the committee's recommendations will be put forward at the meeting.
Nushagak king salmon stock of concern timeline
King runs around the state have seen sharp declines. The Nushagak started to see a downturn in productivity in the late 2000s, and in recent years department managers have tried to conserve kings while still providing opportunity for commercial sockeye fishing. Managers have also said data on king salmon has been unreliable.
October 2022: The state declared Nushagak kings a stock of concern after failing to meet the in-river goal of 95,000 kings for five out of the last six years. Even though managers have delayed commercial sockeye fishing beyond what current regulations require, they have struggled to allow enough kings to escape upriver while providing opportunity for commercial fishermen to tap the enormous sockeye run.
November 2022: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game published a draft action plan just days ahead of the Bristol Bay Board of Fisheries meeting at the end of November.
The plan includes options to restrict commercial, sport and subsistence fishing in the district in order to protect the kings, which have also fallen below the minimum escapement goal multiple times in recent years.
The state Board of Fish was originally supposed to decide on the action plan at the Bristol Bay meeting in November, but the public overwhelmingly asked the board to delay making a decision to allow more time for consideration.
The difference between the stock of concern action plan and proposals to change regular king management
The state’s action plan will be in place as long as kings are a stock of concern. Proposals 11 - 13 are more permanent and would be set in the long term management plan whether kings are in trouble or not.
BBSRI's king salmon working group
Proposal 11 was developed by the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute's king salmon committee. BBSRI is a subsidiary of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. The group is made up of eight members.
In 2018, the Board of Fisheries created a committee to work on the region’s longstanding Nushagak-Mulchatna King Salmon Management Plan, but it was disbanded a year later. The eight members of the working group has continued to meet over the following three years. They developed Proposal 11 ahead of the statewide Bristol Bay meeting last November, but decided to amend it after the state released its draft stock of concern action plan for kings.
BBSRI's committee submitted both an updated Proposal 11 and recommendations for the action plan. Both of these plans affect fishing until June 28. The committee has recommended using optimum escapement goals — goals higher than the current upper escapement goal — to control commercial sockeye fishing in years when the runs are high, which it says would provide more time for kings to swim through the district to their spawning grounds.
For Proposal 11, the committee recommends that the department manage the sockeye run so that it falls within the lower half of the escapement goal range when the Wood River run is forecast to be 7 million or less, and/or the Nushagak's run is 2.5 million or less. The department will manage the runs to meet the upper end of the escapement goal if the runs are forecast to be higher than that.
State fisheries managers and one Nushagak Advisory Committee member said that requiring managers to keep sockeye escapement in the lower end of the escapement goal would mean the fleet would fish more than it does under current regulations.
The proposal also says that the department may close subsistence fishing. This proposal would also create a test fishery in June to assess abundance of kings and sockeye before the sockeye fishery is opened by emergency order.
For the action plan, it recommends implementing a sliding optimum sockeye escapement goal based on the state’s pre-season forecast when sockeye runs are high.
If the department is projecting low king runs, the commissioner shall close commercial fishing in the district until the Wood or Nushagak escapement reaches 6% of the total projected run. That would last until June 28.
Under this plan, the escapement goal for sockeye changes based on the forecast. Nushagak sockeye runs greater than 2.5 million will have 15% added to the escapement goal, and Wood River sockeye runs greater than 7 million will have an added 10%. The BBSRI king salmon committee says this will allow the department to manage more conservatively during high sockeye years.
But both fisheries managers and one Nushagak Advisory Committee member echoed what they said about Proposal 11's goals, pointing out that this plan could force the fleet to fish harder after June 28. That's because it would require managing the fishery so that a Wood River run forecast below 7 million sockeye stays in the escapement goal range of 700,000 - 1.8 million, so managers would have to allow the fleet fish harder to keep the sockeye escapement down after the fishery opens June 28, even if the king run is projected to be low.
During last week's Nushagak Advisory Committee meeting, BBSRI policy analyst and technical advisor Jeff Regnart laid out how that sliding escapement goal could work.
“Let's just say this year, it's 7 million in Nushagak’s forecast. And so you'd have to have 420,000 fish identified as escaping before the manager could think about fishing in that given year if that occurred before the [June] 28th. And of course, if it's 10 million run up the Nushagak then 600,000 would be the trigger. So that trigger flexes up and down the total run strength in the Nushagak."
The king salmon working group also recommends changing sport fishing regulations to allow only four fish over 20 inches to be harvested, of which only one can be 28 inches or larger.
Finally, it does not recommend any changes to subsistence fishing regulations as part of the action plan.
It says that pursuing research on king salmon in the Nushagak watershed is a critical part of its efforts moving forward, and that it has received a grant from the legislature to pursue that research.
The Nushagak Advisory Committee voted to support BBSRI's plan
The Nushagak Advisory Committee has voted to support a modified Proposal 11 and the action plan recommendations put forth by the BBSRI committee. It also opposed Proposal 13, which would provide set periods of closure But they struggled to get to that point. At a meeting last week, Chair Susie Jenkins-Brito said they submitted a letter to the Board of Fish that outlined that struggle to reach a consensus.
“We have been waiting for additional information from the king salmon working group, from ADF&G, BBSRI, and also garnering input from other residents and users in the process,” she said.
The debate has centered around how exactly to restrict commercial fishing for sockeye to protect kings.
The Nushagak Advisory Committee rejected keeping status quo management for the commercial and sport fisheries and has also rejected closing the commercial fishery entirely. Last week, they were still trying to hammer out details on other restrictions on mesh size and fishing time and area.
“Again, that was rolled back to the advisory committee as a whole with the knowledge that the king committee would be providing us with their plan,” said Jenkins-Brito.
Advisory committee secretary Dan Dunaway pointed out that that could actually allow for more commercial fishing when they’re trying to give kings a chance to escape.
“How often do you have a big batch of reds go through, say, before June 28 that might force Tim to fish when we're still way down on the king road?” he asked. “That concerns me quite a bit.”
Regnart said that’s where the managers would have to exercise emergency authority to potentially delay fishing even if the trigger is met.
“So there's a certain expectation, let's just say the trigger’s met and there's a lot of indications that the king run is really poor, well, then they might take added measures,” he said. “I mean, they've been taken added measures through the [emergency order] authority for the last six or seven years because the current plan never envision run strengths this high.”
Fish and Game Area Biologist Tim Sands said they’ve been trying to strike a balance between sockeye harvest and king escapement for years.
“Last year we were fishing even though we knew we were projecting below 55,000,” he said. “But we still kept fishing, because you got to find that balance. And to me, this language says we use the triggers to delay fishing. And now our balance is, yeah we want 95,000 [kings] but we also want to stay below 1.8 million [sockeye].”
Other advisory committee members reiterated the crux of the issue — that protecting kings will cost the commercial sockeye fleet money.
“In a perfect world, we don't fish — period — to get every king we can up that river. That's the perfect world right now. The commercial just doesn't fish," said set netter Travis Ball. "Are we willing to allow all those fish, let all that economic stuff go by potentially wipe out run systems? Because we want to get those extra kings?
The advisory committee’s king salmon subcommittee voted to require fishermen to use 4 3/4 inch mesh until June 28. But that decision was reversed at last week’s meeting. The committee also voted against putting the fleet in the Wood River early in the season to conserve Nushagak kings.
The board will also consider 19 statewide proposals. The board is hearing staff reports and will start hearing public testimony today. We’ll have more on the staff reports, public testimony, Committee of the Whole and deliberations throughout the weekend.
The meeting is being streamed live on its website and YouTube, and we’ll also stream those videos on KDLG.org
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