by Leon Archer
When we left the Nushagak River and the city of Dillingham behind us, the number of returning king salmon was way under the minimum escapement requirement for the river — and the limits had been lowered.
The red salmon run was also well below the numbers that Fish & Game wanted to see. By last weekend, the king numbers had started to come up enough that it was projected that the minimum number would be reached, and by mid-week at least 70,000 kings were in the river with more coming. That’s really good news.
This year, most rivers in Alaska were shut down for king salmon, because the runs were so weak. That led to a lot more fishermen showing up on the Nushagak. Famed rivers such as the Kenai were not even open to catch and release as a measure to protect the returning stocks. There is growing concern about what is happening to king salmon and to a slightly lesser degree over the other salmon.
There was a two-page article in the Anchorage newspaper while we were in Alaska that delved into the developing problem and possible causes. It was interesting to me that none of the causes posed as a reason for disappointing runs was sport fishing.
Probably the reason sport fishing was not listed as a culprit is that sport fishing is the most easily controlled and monitored consumptive activity affecting the salmon stocks.
Conversely, controlling sport fishing has the least effect on the number of salmon reaching the spawning grounds each year.
Cut out all sport fishing and unless the run is extremely emaciated, the numbers reaching the spawning grounds would not look much different. Clamping down on sport fishing is a last resort to protect what’s left of lagging run.
Beyond the hand wringing and bewilderment, there are some things to look at. According to the newspaper article, there are indications, or perhaps guesses, that ocean conditions may be a big factor in the poor salmon showing all over Alaska.
That includes ocean temperatures that have changed on feeding grounds, affecting the number and type of prey species, and also stressing the metabolisms of the salmon.
The article also mentioned that the cod and Pollack trawlers were destroying ever increasing numbers of high seas salmon. A few years ago, the numbers caught in the trawlers was 30,000 to 40,000, but according to the article, this past year the number was 130,000 thousand salmon wasted as by-catch.
You see, it is illegal for the trawlers to keep salmon even though they are dead, but there is no way to keep them from being scooped up in the huge dragging nets used for cod and Pollack.
All those salmon are discarded, dead, as by-catch. There is a movement to limit the total by-catch of salmon by the trawling fleet to not more than fifty thousand fish, or perhaps an even lower number.
Once they have reached that number, the cod and Pollack fishing season would end.
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