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Dunleavy again vetoes research project on salmon bycatch

Chum salmon migration.
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge
Chum salmon migration.

Among the projects Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed from the state budget on Monday was salmon research to help determine the causes of the chinook and chum crisis in western Alaska.

Dunleavy vetoed $513,000 for research on the origins of salmon caught by accident in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, as well as the origin of salmon intercepted by fishermen off the Alaska Peninsula in what’s known as “Area M.” Dunleavy vetoed the project last year, too.

“You never know what’s going to come of these budgets. But this is quite a disappointment, again,” said Karen Gillis, program director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. The association was to receive the money and pass it on to a partnership of federal and university scientists.

The veto documentation said the funding was cut to save money. Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner added that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did not believe the study would meet its objectives and that $100,000 would have gone to the University of Washington for overhead.

The research results would have policy implications, and could fuel the fury already burning in communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. For the fourth season in a row, subsistence salmon fishermen in the region are shut down or severely restricted. Chinook and chum are returning to those rivers in numbers so low that there’s barely enough to meet escapement targets for spawning. Meanwhile, thousands of chinook and chum are caught every season in the Bering Sea and Area M fisheries.

Prior research has shown that only a portion of that salmon bycatch was destined for western Alaska rivers, with many of the fish originating from Asia. Gillis said more research is needed to aid management decisions.

“The genetic work that’s been done to date lump the Norton Sound, Yukon, Kuskokwim and Bristol Bay stocks into something called ‘coastal western Alaska,'” she said. “And so what this work does is studies from otoliths of adult salmon to determine their geographic location or their birthplace, basically.”

Otoliths, or ear bones, of salmon bear the chemical fingerprint of the freshwater the fish has swum through, allowing scientists to determine not just which side of the Pacific the fish originated, but which river system.

Gillis said last year’s veto halted the project but there may be another source for the funding.

Liz Ruskin