For many Alaskans, chinook salmon are our most precious resource. They are the official state fish of Alaska. We own them, and our government has a responsibility to manage them for our sustainable harvest.
For many of us, the opportunity to catch and eat just one of these great fish is one of the primary reasons we live here. We buy boats, we invest in tackle, we take time off work and we drive through the night for hundreds of miles just for the chance to catch one, bonk it on the head and feed it to our families.
Though our constitution guarantees us equal access to all our commonly owned resources, and expressly prohibits exclusive rights to fish, the only user group harvesting king salmon this summer are commercial fishermen, most of whom live Outside during the winter.
As total closures or catch and release regulations have been imposed throughout Alaska on personal use and sport fishers, the commercial fishers have continued harvesting hundreds of thousands of kings. If there was ever a time for Alaskans to revolt over how our king salmon are being mismanaged, it is now.
The Legislature, the Board of Fisheries, and the governor each have the ability to reallocate king salmon from the non-resident commercial fleet to Alaskans who harvest for personal consumption. The commercial fishermen donate heavily and lobby extensively to maintain control over our fish, while we continue to sit quietly on the shore, watching the last few kings swim up the river. The drift gill nets, the purse seines, the beach seines and the fish vacuums known as factory trawlers have historically accounted for 99 percent of all salmon harvested. The leftover 1 percent placates the rest of us in times of plenty, but in times of shortage, it is politically expedient to cut our minimal harvest completely, rather than reduce the profits of Seattle-based seafood companies.
The Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have been closed to sport fishing for several years, and even subsistence fishers have been denied their fish, while offshore trawlers kill kings by the tens of thousands. These great fish are inconvenient “bycatch” to the Seattle-based pollock fleet that provide cheap fish sticks to the world at our considerable expense.
Most of the road system king fisheries were closed before the season even started — the Talkeetna, the Kenai and the Gulkana to name a few. On Kodiak, the Karluk River is closed completely, and the Ayakulik is catch-and-release.
In 1996, more than 14,000 kings were counted in the Gulkana. Last year, only 1,620 made it. This year, through July 2, only 450 kings have been counted.
Upriver harvesters should not be alone in their sacrifice to protect these threatened fish. Before a single fish was harvested in the Gulkana this year, the river was closed to fishing with bait and to any harvest by emergency order. A poor preseason forecast for the Copper River showed no signs of improving, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sport fish biologist shut us down before we could even wet a line.
A few years ago, the Gulkana supported hundreds of anglers a day. Boat dealers, guides, lodges, gas stations and tackle shops all prospered. This year on July 7, on 20 miles of river, there were two people fishing the river with flies (bait, of course, has been banned). Lodges and guides have gone bankrupt, boats remain plastic wrapped and most backyard barbecues haven’t seen a king fillet in several years.
Meanwhile, at the mouth of the Copper River in Cordova, 450 permit holders have been targeting and harvesting kings by the thousands. The commercial fish managers at ADFG have taken full advantage of the upriver closures by allocating every king salmon to the Cordova commercial fleet. You can buy a Gulkana king at Fred Meyer, but you can’t catch one yourself.
Almost 20 years ago, the Board of Fisheries agreed that the commercial fleet was harvesting more than their fair share of Copper River kings by targeting them in the river mouth. This area was designated the “Chinook Salmon Inside Closure Area,” and was closed when more kings were needed to escape upriver.
This year, the Chinook Salmon Inside Closure Area was closed to commercial fishing until June 13, then was opened only two days after the ADFG sport fish biologist issued an emergency order closing the Gulkana to any harvest. The commercial fleet then targeted kings in the mouth of the Copper River, killing 1,000 (and 311,000 reds) during an extremely liberal 36-hour fishing period inside the Chinook Salmon Inside Closure Area.
Those 1,000 fish were being sold in Tokyo and New York, while Alaska dip-netters, risking life and limb to harvest their food, were required by emergency order on June 17 to release any kings they caught. With Chitina and the Gulkana closed to any harvest, the commercial fish “managers” in Cordova quickly decided to allow the gillnetters to target kings, and they have opened the Chinook Salmon Inside Closure Area for every commercial fishing period since June 13. The commercial fleet at the mouth has harvested more than 8,500 kings so far this season. Three-thousand two hundred of those kings were harvested in just a single 12-hour opener on May 27, when the river was still frozen and only 46 fish had moved from the Inside Closure Area and past the sonar.
That May 27 opener defied all logic, science and common sense, and forced the sport fish biologists at ADFG to shut down the first scheduled opener in Chitina. Such poor management decisions underscore the importance of involving the governor and Legislature in this fish war. The Board of Fisheries and the Commercial Fisheries Division of the ADFG are controlled by commercial fishing interests and will never change their commercial fish bias until required to do so.
If we remain complacent and simply accept the fact that we are not worthy of eating kings, all of our fish will continue to be allocated to commercial fishermen, escapement goals will be “adjusted” down, and we will never again see a harvestable surplus of fish available to us. A couple more years of complacency, and we will gradually accept hanging up our king rods forever and buying our fish at Fred Meyer.
We need to stand up for our right to harvest our own fish, and to insist that fish for personal consumption be prioritized over fish for sale.
Contact the governor at alaska.gov your local legislators at senator (or representative).first name.last firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax your comments to the Board of Fisheries at (907) 465-6094. The board will be making king salmon allocation decisions for Cook Inlet this year and for the Copper River next year. Tell them to give individual consumptive users a priority over commercial use of king salmon.
Michael Kramer is a Fairbanks lawyer and former fishing guide on the Gulkana River. He represents the Alaska Outdoor Council on consumptive use issues and is the chairman of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee’s Fisheries Subcommittee.