Alaska Chinook project looking to sockeye fishermen for help | Polarjournal
Bristol Bay is the richest commercial fishery in America’s biggest fishing state, thanks to the fact that it is a habitat for huge numbers of salmon (Photo: echoforsberg)

Sockeyes are the more commercially valuable salmon species, but rules to protect Chinook that would affect all salmon fishing are giving fishermen an added incentive to take part in a monitoring programme aimed at stopping their decline

In the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, sockeye salmon runs have been booming while Chinook runs have dwindled. Now scientists are seeking to enlist fishing crews in the effort to find out why, as well as what can be done about the Chinook troubles.

A community-focused programme called Skipper Science is asking for Bristol Bay fishermen working on the salmon-rich Nushagak River to record the prevalence, locations and conditions of Chinook salmon they encounter — and the places where they are not found.

The Nushagak project is a partnership between Skipper Science, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a a fisherman’s union, and the University of Washington’s Alaska Salmon Programme. As with other Skipper Science projects, the Nushagak Chinook mapping project involves a computer app through which fishing crew members can record observations using their mobile phone.

For Bristol Bay fishermen, the Chinook question is a matter of some urgency, even though they concentrate on sockeye. The dire condition of Chinook salmon, also called king salmon, could restrict harvests of Nushagak sockeyes, even though the latter are plentiful.

Juvenile Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are seen on 12 July 2006, swimming in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in south-western Alaska (Photo: USFWS / Togiak National Wildlife Refuge)

After analysing the situation, which includes lost opportunities for harvests of plentiful sockeye, the Alaska Board of Fisheries, a state agency, in March approved a rule that establishes Chinook-protecting prerequisites for opening of any salmon fishing in the river.

“There’s a lot at stake here in terms of the sockeye resource and what impact kings might have on it,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Aside from potentially lost economic opportunities worth millions of dollars, there is a possibility of over-escapement of sockeye, meaning too many fish crowding the spawning grounds, he said.

Chinook salmon have been on decline throughout their range, and there are some theories about why that is so. Some experts believe there are widespread problems in the ocean. “The ocean is a big place, and a lot of things can happen there,” Mr Wink said.

He believes that one contributor is an increase in salmon-eating marine mammals, particularly orcas, which he said have moved northward in large numbers. “Sea lions and orcas in particular eat a lot of king salmon.”

Preparing floating net pens for transport and release of acoustic-tagged juvenile Chinook in Little Port Walter research station, Alaska (Photo: Ty Hatton / USGS)

Climate change in the ocean could be having myriad effects, scientists say, including a speed-up of Chinook metabolism that makes the fish mature earlier and return to spawning rivers in smaller size. University of Washington scientists have documented smaller Chinook salmon through their range.

Warming of upriver areas could also have an effect. For example, there has been an uptick in the Yukon River of the number of Ichthyophonus, a parasite that affects fish at higher rates when water temperatures are warmer. There has also been documentation of heat stress among salmon in the upper Yukon River and elsewhere. Biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a state agency, the USGS, a federal science agency, and other agencies and organisations have been studying those and other potential salmon problems.

Skipper Science is a relatively new programme, but it builds on some long traditions of direct observation by those closest to nature.

The programme was established in 2021 as an outgrowth of the Indigenous Sentinels Network, based in the Bering Sea island community of St Paul. There are now numerous communities, fishing organisations and state and federal agencies that are partners in the Skipper Science programme.

Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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