Southeast fleets adjust to a season without kings

King salmon at a market in Seattle.

King salmon at a market in Seattle. (Creative Commons photo by Jill /Blue Moonbeam Studio)

The realities of the Southeast king salmon closure will hit home as of Thursday, August 10, when no one — whether fishing commercially or recreationally — will be permitted to retain one of Alaska’s most sought-after species.

Industry groups from both the commercial and sport sectors have been sorting through the limited information available from the state about the closure, and soothing the tempers of their members.

One thing is certain though: Both sectors want to ensure that 2017’s unprecedented closure is not repeated in the future.

The king closure leaves about 31,000 fish in the water, which might otherwise have been harvested by commercial trollers. In a state that tallies up seafood harvests in the millions of tons, what are 31,000 fish?

“They’re literally worth their weight in gold,” said Dale Kelley, the director of the Alaska Trollers Association for three decades.

“The financial cost of no king salmon for the troll fleet — we just don’t easily recover from that. But we definitely grateful that we’ve got a big coho run and that Fish and Game is going to let us take them.”

The coho this year are plentiful — maybe even a record return — but silvers are small, and the price difference with kings is substantial.

Back in the first four days of July, Southeast trollers landed 66,000 kings and were paid between $8-$10 per pound. Typically there’s a significant price drop between the winter, spring and summer troll fisheries, and more trollers head out to catch larger numbers of fish.

Everyone knew that this was going to be a skinny summer season, and prices remained high, especially after spring trolling was abruptly shut down when kings were not showing up in large numbers in Southeast Alaska’s 11 major river systems.

But a total closure? In summer?

“Given the lack of historical precedent for such an overarching closure, I can’t say anyone expected something like this to happen,” said Samantha Weinstein, the director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.

Based on creel survey data, the best time of year for sports fishermen to catch kings in Southeast is June, but for someone traveling from the Lower 48 for a bucket-list trip to Alaska, the best time to catch a king is the moment they get a hook in the water — from May through September.

Weinstein is concerned that the closure will have a chilling effect on bookings.

“Essentially, this is a client-centered business. And you want to make your clients’ experience the best possible. And not being able to keep some fish can obviously get in the way of that.”

Neither Weinstein or Kelley has a full grasp of the numbers driving the decision to completely shut down king fishing in the region.

According to Charlie Swanton, the deputy commissioner of Fish & Game — who’s taking the most heat for the call — there is no single smoking gun; rather, it’s a combination of historic low returns in Alaska’s rivers, and …

“Secondarily, there are some stocks in British Columbia per say — the Fraser inclusive — that have experienced similar poor conditions, and they are in dire straits as well.”

There’s a third problem, one that’s probably the biggest question mark hanging over Alaska’s fisheries: Ocean survival.

The numbers of juvenile kings leaving Alaska’s rivers in the spring is pretty good. Hatchery releases of all species have been large.

The fish just aren’t coming back.

Kelley said it’s clear that this isn’t a fishing problem.

She wonders whether Alaska’s unilateral decision to close fishing will make any difference, and whether Canada and Washington state don’t follow suit.

“We’re managing to send a fraction of fish down to the Fraser River that might not even get there to the river mouth under natural circumstances, much less if they’ve got a fishery gauntlet in the way.”

Kelley has faith in the scientists and managers of Alaska Department of Fish & Game to make decisions in the best interest of the fish — she just wants everyone to share the pain equally. Otherwise, she says, “It’s a de facto reallocation dressed up as conservation.”

Weinstein, with the Southeast Guides Organization, shares Kelley’s faith.

KCAW: Are you confident that ADF&G has made the right move, or would you rather that they had chosen another course of action?

Weinstein: (pauses) I would want to express our support for the department… When decisions are made with the health of our fishery in mind, I think we all have to support them.

Weinstein would like to see improved communication between managers and the sport fisheries, so her members aren’t caught off-guard.

Kelley, too, said the troll fleet was positioning for a second opener to target the 31,000 kings remaining on the quota. The sudden turn of events has forced the fleet and processors to readjust on the fly.

Or worse: There’s always someone who, because of a breakdown or other emergency, misses that all-important July opener, and pins their hopes on August.

But for both the commercial and recreational fisheries the bottom line simple: Preserve the stocks.

In a state known for its careful management, and abundant harvests, deputy commissioner Charlie Swanton would prefer to be in the public eye under more positive circumstances.

“This is what we do,” he says. “It’s part of the business.”

Alaska has a lot going on right now.

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