Low Stikine sockeye forecast could mean early subsistence closure

Boat leaving Wrangell, 2020. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Federal managers are warning that there may not be enough sockeye salmon to allow a full season of subsistence fishing on the Stikine River. That could lead to a premature closure of an important source of food in the Wrangell area.

Federal fisheries biologist Rob Cross manages the districts near Petersburg and Wrangell. He says the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t take these decisions lightly.

“Our goal certainly isn’t to close the subsistence fishery,” Cross said. “This year, we have a below average preseason forecast for sockeye. So basically, we just want to give harvesters a heads up and let them make an informed decision about where they’re going to focus their efforts this year.”

The preseason forecast for Stikine sockeye is 56,000 fish. That’s less than half of the 10-year average.

Cross says managing the subsistence fishery is a balancing act.

“Our primary goal is to maximize subsistence opportunity for these communities, because they really depend on the Stikine fishery,” he said. “But at the same time, we need to make sure that there’s a healthy stock for fish as well. So we’re basically just letting people know that there’s a possibility of a closure throughout the season.”

An early closure isn’t guaranteed. The Forest Service says it will be working with Wrangell’s tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, to conduct harvest surveys throughout the summer.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that a low pre-season forecast has led the Forest Service to warn subsistence fishermen of a possible closure for sockeye harvest. In 2019, Wrangell District Ranger Clint Kolarich closed the subsistence sockeye fishery nine days before the set close date because of low escapement.

Cross says that possible closures to the sockeye subsistence fishery up the Stikine would not affect the coho subsistence fishery in the area.

The federal subsistence fishery for chinook salmon has been closed since 2017 due to low return numbers and mature fish being smaller than average.

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