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Alaska Fish Factor: Chinook Salmon Research Suffers Funding Cuts

24 August 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - One of the casualties of this year’s budget cuts was funds for a program aimed at discovering why Alaska’s Chinook salmon stocks have been declining since 2007.

A five year, $30 million Chinook Salmon Research Initiative launched in 2013 included more than 100 researchers focused on three dozen projects in 12 major river systems from Southeast to the Yukon. Now the ambitious effort has been cut to just over one dozen projects.

“When we saw we weren’t going to get a third appropriation this fiscal year, we had to step back and narrow the focus, and make sure key projects still had money to continue for at least the next two years,” said Ed Jones, a coordinator with the state Sport Fish Division who oversees the Initiative team.

The project has received two $7.5 million appropriations so far, and just over $6 million remains.

“We’re hopeful that another appropriation will come down the pike,” Jones said. “These are long term endeavors and we’ve just now scratched the surface of the research.”

Continuing will be Chinook harvest sampling programs at Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Cook Inlet and Southeast.

“Those projects are very important. They identify stocks of Chinook salmon over time in our catches.

You know the old assumption that you catch a Chinook right off the mouth of a river and it’s going to that river? We’re starting to realize that’s not necessarily the case,” Jones said.

Also saved is a new juvenile Chinook tagging project at the Copper River.

“For two years we’ve tagged smolt and clipped off an adipose fin as they are starting to leave the river. We also are doing genetic sampling,” he explained.

“So when those fish start to return as adults to Prince William Sound, we will be able to tell what stocks in that catch are actually going into the Copper River and what stocks are going elsewhere.

And in theory, we’ll be able to tell what the marine survival is of the Chinook salmon over time. That’s pretty neat,” Jones said.

Initiative dollars also have helped fund a four year, ongoing juvenile salmon tracking program that identifies Chinook cycles and production over time on the Yukon. New programs that track adult salmon on the Kuskokwim and at Bristol Bay’s Nushagak Rivers are called “the most important ones we have going,” by the Initiative team, and so far they’ve learned there are a lot more Chinook salmon in the Nushagak than anyone ever thought.

“We have an adult marker/catcher project in the Nushagak and we compare that to the estimates we’ve been obtaining for many years through the sonar project,” Jones explained.

“The sonar project is designed to count sockeye salmon and it does a really good job of that. But Chinook salmon are kind of finicky and once the sockeye get in the river, they shy away and run more in the middle of the river and avoid our sonar array. We’re starting to realize there’s more fish getting by than we originally thought.”

“I’ve always thought the Nushagak was probably one of the largest producers of wild Chinook salmon in the world,” Jones added, “And certainly with the Kuskokwim and the Yukon, those three systems in any given year could be the world’s largest producer.”

Chinook salmon stock assessments in Southeast Alaska have been in the water since the early 1990s in response to needs identified by the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Jones said “they by far are the leaders along the entire coast in the field of stock assessment,” and he hopes the Initiative can “move those methodologies northward to the rest of the state.”

“During the downturn in Chinook production, folks were asking why these fish were not coming back.

In Southeast, our projects identified the problem was not the fresh water environment,” Jones said.

“We were finding that the fish were dying in the marine environment at a higher rate than ever before. We couldn’t say that up north because we didn’t have the projects in the water.”

Chinook salmon spend five years at sea before returning to their home streams to spawn, and their runs consist of multiple age classes, with five year olds being dominant. This year, the runs showed some hopeful signs.

“Long story short – what we’ve seen in recent years is back to back poor brood year production over multiple years,” Jones explained. “But this year we finally saw a bright spot with that 2010 brood year, and next year we have very good confidence in average to above average production of six year olds. That’s a good sign, but what we really need to see is back to back good brood years. Then I’ll start saying we’re climbing out of the hole and starting to cycle in the other direction.”

Big BOF agenda - The state Board of Fisheries will take up 215 proposals during its 2015/2016 meeting cycle, which begins in late October. The focus this cycle is on the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay and AYK (Arctic / Yukon / Kuskokwim) regions. There are 70 management proposals on the agenda for Bristol Bay, 24 for commercial fisheries.

Halibut happenings - The interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission is set for December 1-2 in Seattle. The public can submit regulation or management proposals to the IPHC by October 31 for consideration at its 92nd annual meeting set for January in Juneau. At that meeting the 2016 halibut catch limits, season dates and any new rules for the fishery will be decided.

NOAA Fisheries also is extending the nomination period for candidates to fill two U.S. Commissioner seats on the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Terms for the current commissioners expire this year on December 31. A call for nominations in May only yielded names of two seated commissioners: Bob Alverson of Seattle and Don Lane of Homer.

In its announcement, NOAA said: While this recent solicitation of nominations resulted in two strong candidates, NOAA Fisheries is seeking a greater number of nominations from which to propose two candidates for appointment by the President. The lack of a larger candidate pool impacts the ability of the recommending officials to propose Alternate Commissioners.”

Nominations can be made through September 18 at

Eat more fish! Most Americans are not eating enough seafood, according to a national study by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The study was based on an evaluation of food-intake data collected from a representative sampling of the U.S. population in a national survey called "What We Eat in America."

The research found that the proportions of seafood consumption varied by sex, income, and education level, but not by race-ethnicity. Groups associated with eating less (or no) seafood were women, people aged 19 to 30, and people of lower income and education levels.

“Mixed messages about the true benefits of eating more seafood seems to have deterred U.S. consumers from including more of it in their diets,” the National Fisheries Institute said in response to the report. Latest data from 2013 lists U.S. seafood consumption at about 15 pounds per capita. 

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