On the Kuksokwim River, king salmon are arriving in slightly higher numbers than previous years at this point in the season. Red salmon are coming in strong like they have in recent summers. Meanwhile, biologists are asking, "Where are the chum?" Chum salmon are arriving in much lower numbers than previous years in rivers across Western Alaska. KYUK asked the researcher who tracks these numbers on the Kuskokwim what’s going on.
Nicholas Smith: I'm Nicholas Smith. I am the Kuskokwim Area Research Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. What we're seeing for chum numbers is a weak run, based on the Bethel test fishery and the sonar project that they're [ADF&G] operating in the lower Kuskokwim River. Part of that could be a later run timing, which we have observed in the last couple of years, but we're still waiting on the run to build to get an idea of where we're actually going to head.
KYUK: Historically, how much of the chum run has passed Bethel at this point in the season?
Smith: If we were basing it on an average run timing, we're about 14 percent through the chum run at Bethel, so we've still got a lot of the run left to go. If we look at the long-term averages, we're sitting anywhere from 8 to 22 percent through the run. So both of those, based on what we've observed in the past and also based on average, we've got a long ways to go before the chum run actually materializes and we see a full picture of what we're expecting for a total run and escapement.
KYUK: How do the numbers look so far this season as compared to past seasons for chum?
Smith: For our current in-season assessment, our numbers are are lower. We're tracking some of the lowest runs at the Bethel test fishery that we've observed in recent years. Back in the early 2000s when the original chum crashes occurred, that's where our Bethel test fishery is tracking at the moment.
KYUK: So we're currently tracking with a crash?
Smith: Yes. So when we put this crash into perspective, in 1999, 2000, 2001, there were declines in chum salmon abundance all around Western Alaska. And what those declines turned into was restrictions to commercial fisheries. The Kuskokwim River does not currently have a commercial fishery operating in the lower Kuskokwim River, and it hasn't since 2015. So when we talk about crashes, our historical perspective is that it's always impacted the commercial fisheries. The subsistence fisheries during the original chum crashes still occurred, and the amounts reasonably necessary for subsistence were still met during those crashes. So that's kind of where the department is sitting in our thinking: that the run is appearing weak, but it's not to a point where subsistence fishing needs to be restricted because there is no commercial fishery occurring.
KYUK: At what point would subsistence fishing need to be restricted?
Smith: From an assessment perspective, if we saw the chum salmon run just completely drop off. So you imagine if they just closed the door, no more chum salmon came off the river, the Bethel test fishery went to straight zeros for assessment, that's when we'd start to start looking at what is actually going on with the chum run and are restrictions warranted. But at this time, with the run still building and we're still passing Chinook at the sonar in the test fishery, at this point there's no perceived need for management on the subsistence fishery.
KYUK: Is there any way to attach numbers to the chum run at this point beyond percentages? Is there data for that?
Smith: When we talk about chum salmon, we're definitely data-limited in comparison to Chinook or king salmon. With king salmon we have run reconstruction that gives us total run and total abundance. We do not have that available for chum salmon. What we have is indexes is in the lower river: a new sonar project that's operated for the last handful of years and then escapement monitoring projects throughout the Kuskokwim River. So putting an actual number of fish on any given year of what we'd expect is very difficult. What we've done in the past is look at Bethel test fishery and then how that performance at the end of season and our escapement monitoring projects turned out.
KYUK: Low chum numbers are also being seen in other rivers in Western Alaska. What does it look like in other places?
Smith: So that the Kuskokwim is not immune to projecting low abundance this year. The Yukon River has currently projected well below their pre-season forecast and what they've seen in recent years. Norton Sound is not looking good. So this seems like it's a coastal Western Alaska theme occurring this year for chum salmon.
KYUK: Any indication as to what's happening?
Smith: You know, this early in, seeing low abundances, it's one of those things that you've got to give it time and see what the actual end products are at the end of the season, and then evaluate where you're at. But if a big event is occurring across multiple river stocks, the general finger initially goes to something occurring in the ocean, or when those fish entered the ocean that there was some period where they didn't have great survival, because the last number of years we've had good escapements on the Kuskokwim. They've all been within their respective escapement goals, so you'd expect a certain number of fish coming back.
KYUK: What else should we know about chum at this point in the season?
Smith: That we're still very, very early in the run. If you check in next week, we'll have a better picture of what's going on, because we'll get more fish coming in the river. We'll have harvest reports from subsistence fishers. And we can start to paint a better picture, because trying to make a prediction very early in the run, your confidence is low because there's a lot of variability at play when fish just start to enter the river.
KYUK: King salmon on the Kuskokwim are returning higher than initially forecast. Tell me more about that.
Smith: Yes, so going into the season, we set forth a forecast of 115,000 to 150,000 king salmon that we thought would be returning to the Kuskokwim River. And we've been monitoring the run since they began coming in the river with the Bethel test fishery and the sonar project. And what we're observing from those two projects is that it appears that the run is coming in at or above forecasts. So we're looking at that 130,000 to 150,000 fish range, and we've seen just a continual building of fish moving through the lower river. And now we're getting harvest estimates from subsistence fishers and they've been harvesting a lot of fish with minimal effort compared to previous years. They're catching a lot more fish, which also would show us that there's a lot of fish in the river. And then we're starting to get fish up in the escapement area, and some of the weirs are starting to pass kings. And once again it's still very early, but it's a good sign that fish are passing in pretty large numbers for this time of the year.
KYUK: With the king numbers being higher, does that indicate that the conservation and restriction efforts over the past years have been working? Or is it too soon to know at this point?
Smith: It would be a more concrete answer at the end of the season once we've got an estimate of total run and escapement and we could answer this question for sure. But thinking about it theoretically, the last handful of years we've been having escapements within the drainage-wide escapement goal of 65,000 to 120,000 fish, and the reason that goal is there is to provide for future yields. So it's going to protect the viability of Chinook salmon as a whole, but then on top of that, allow for a certain yield of how many more fish can be harvested. So hitting it in with that 65,000 to 120,000 fish range over the long term, we would expect to have good enough runs coming back so you can have enough fish for escapement and then also harvest on top of that. So 2013 was below the escapement goal. That was the one of the worst escapement we've ever seen, but we've been seeing decent returns off of that run. And then after that we've been within the escapement goal range. So it's not unexpected that you would have a year where you start to have good returns coming back from years when you're in an escapement goal. That's the whole premise behind them.
KYUK: What about the red salmon? How are they looking on the Kuskokwim?
Smith: Red salmon, or sockeye salmon, they appear to be coming in kind of like they've done the last couple of years, and those last couple of years have been record runs in the Kuskokwim River. We've got a lot of fish coming down in Kuskokwim Bay right now at our assessment projects, and so that bodes well to the river having another strong sockeye run. And people are catching them. Our sonar projects are catching a fair amount of them. So that's encouraging to see sockeye coming in the river as strong as they are.
KYUK: Nick Smith is the Kuskokwim Area Research Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Thank you, Nick.
Smith: Thank you.