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Scientists, politicians, managers, and Tribes try to find common ground on Western Alaska salmon crash

The entities attending the meeting did not come to one solid “path forward,” as the delegates had intended.
Olivia Ebertz
The entities attending the meeting did not come to one solid “path forward” as the delegates had intended.

On Dec. 8 and 9, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young held a Zoom meeting between salmon researchers, tribes, and managers. Their goal was to unite these groups’ efforts to determine the cause of the ongoing Chinook declines and the sudden chum crash in Western Alaska. After two days of meetings, the groups are still at odds over what’s causing the declines, and what the best way to move forward is.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game kicked off each day of the two day conference with remarks. He spent part of his time reassuring participants that he believes the salmon can bounce back.

“You know, salmon are cyclical. They go up and down. I'm not trying to belittle what's happening this last year, because that was definitely a big crash,” said Vincent-Lang.

But he also said the state of Alaska plans to look into some of the issues they believe are contributing to the crash. He floated theories like bycatch, the salmon being potentially caught in other Alaska fisheries, and salmon being consumed by predators. He said that the state is losing unknown amounts of chum to Russia.

“We know Russian trawlers catch salmon, but do not know how many or what the origin is. As a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, we have written a letter to the [U.S.] Secretary of State, asking them to work with us to get better catch accounting and genetic analysis of Russian salmon bycatch,” said Vincent-Lang.

But he didn’t mention the main theory for the salmon declines floated by researchers from NOAA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks: that the chum crash is likely caused by warming waters out at sea. Dr. Ed Farley is a scientist at NOAA who has monitored salmon habitat for 20 years. He presented at the roundtable and spoke with KYUK afterwards.

“So the thing that we're noticing, especially in the northern Bering Sea, is this extreme warming events that had started in 2016 all the way through 2019 is a real shift in the food web,” said Farley.

Basically, in the years with the warmer oceans, baby salmon haven’t been able to get critical food sources. That kills them off, scientists think. But Farley points out that scientists still have a lot to learn. Just last year, for example, scientists learned that chum overwinter in the Gulf of Alaska. Now that scientists have confirmed where the young fish spend their first winters, Farley hopes that they can get closer to determining why they’re dying. NOAA is planning several sea voyages to the gulf this winter to study the issue.

Many entities attending this roundtable agreed that there’s a need for more and better data. More sonars on the rivers, more monitoring out at sea, etc. But some tribal leaders said that it should be more about taking action right now. Mary Peltola is the executive director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She was on the call as a listener, and was wary about potentially endless research projects.

“We don't have time to sit on our hands and wait for these research projects to start and finish. Precautionary management needs to happen now. Adaptive management needs to happen now,” said Peltola.

Peltola said that managers need to be looking at salmon habitat in Western Alaska in a holistic way. That means across river and ocean systems. Right now, there are researchers who study marine life of salmon and researchers who study the river life of salmon, but there aren’t many who do both. And the management of the fish is split between the ocean vessels and the river residents. There are caps on the number of Chinook trawlers can catch as bycatch, but no caps on the number of chums. Yet river residents sometimes aren’t allowed to catch any salmon. Peltola said that splitting it up like this doesn’t make sense.

“We have got to find a way where we manage river systems as a whole system and not these silly, man-made jurisdictional issues. And the fact that the [Alaska] Department of Fish and Game says their hands are tied when it comes to salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea, because that's under the purview of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Having both agencies pointing at the other is unfair to all of the users,” said Peltola.

Peltola said that we should be listening to the traditional knowledge from people who know the land. Like Elder James Nicori of Kwethluk, who said that to know what’s happening in the river, it’s best to look up.

“I watch the migration of the spring bring birds that are coming, specifically the geese. If they're abundant, our salmon will be abundant,” said Nicori.

Two of the meeting hosts, Sens. Sullivan and Murkowksi, said that they plan to look for federal funding for salmon. Sullivan mentioned that he was working on a bill that would include funding for Alaska salmon research, but it’s unlikely to go through. Fewer than 1% of bills filed in Congress become law. None of the 23 bills Sullivan has sponsored this year have passed the Senate.

The entities attending the meeting did not come to one solid “path forward” as the delegates had intended, but Murkowski said that she hopes this would be the first of many such meetings.

Meanwhile, subsistence users on the Yukon River are currently going without salmon for the winter. And users on the Kuskokwim have a reduced supply of chum and Chinook.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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