A subsistence fisherman checking his net in the Chilkat River. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

A subsistence fisherman checking his net in the Chilkat River. (Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund)

A historically low Chilkat River king salmon run and an even more dismal forecast for this year are prompting a local committee to action. The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee wants the state Board of Fisheries to impose new subsistence fishing net restrictions.

Haines and Klukwan fishermen have watched the return of adult Chinook salmon to the Chilkat River fall over the past decade. In 2016, the escapement estimate was about 1,300 large Chinook. That’s the lowest in about 25 years.

And the numbers for this year look even grimmer. Fish and Game forecasts only about 600 fish in-river for 2017.

The plunging forecast has been a topic of discussion at recent Fish and Game Advisory Committee meetings. At the most recent meeting, committee member Will Prisciandaro proposed some action.

“This proposal addresses the need for conservation of the Chilkat Chinook salmon population through the use of maximum gillnet size restriction of 5 ¼ inches through Aug. 1 in the District 15 Southeast Alaska subsistence fishery,” Prisciandaro said.

The subsistence fishery in the Haines area, District 15, targets sockeye, pink, coho and chum – not Chinook. But sometimes, Chinooks are inadvertently caught. The goal of Prisciandaro’s proposal is to limit that incidental catch.

His letter says that prior to Aug. 1, gillnets with 5 ¼ inch mesh or less would still allow subsistence fishermen to catch sockeye and pink salmon, while allowing Chinook a better chance of ‘bouncing off’ nets to reach their spawning grounds. Adult Chinooks are bigger fish, and it would be less easy to snag them with nets that have smaller openings.

Fish and Game already uses net restrictions in the Haines-area commercial fishery, but not the subsistence fishery. If the net restriction were approved, it would affect subsistence fishing from Glacier Point north in the Chilkat Inlet and in the Chilkat River from 4 mile to one mile above Wells Bridge.

The proposal extends only until the beginning of August because by that time most Chinook have reached their spawning grounds.

The committee and audience discussed whether the net restrictions would impose a hardship on subsistence fishermen. Prisciandaro said he chose the 5 and ¼ size because many people already have that type of net.

Committee member Derek Poinsette said that’s the size of his sub net. But he said some of his friends use patchwork nets.

“It might be kind of a hardship on some folks, folks that are genuine subsistence fishermen that just have scraps of nets all knitted together, you know,” Poinsette said. “Not that I’m opposed to the idea.”

Most of the people who took part in the discussion said the potential hardship to fishermen was minimal compared to the importance of protecting spawning Chinooks.

“If we have an issue, we all should work together to solve the problem,” said Charlie DeWitt. “If we have to buy new nets – suppose we don’t go fishing, are two or three weeks letting the kings go gonna let you starve? No. Let the fish go.”

The advisory committee unanimously voted to send the net restriction proposal to the Board of Fish. The board is accepting proposals for its 2017/2018 cycle.

Separate from the Board of Fish proposal, biologist Rich Chapell said Fish and Game is still deciding conservation measures in light of the plunging Chinook forecast.

“Fish and Game staff in Southeast has made recommendations and all of that is being considered at the commissioner’s office right now,” Chapell said. “So by the end of February we should have a plan for king salmon conservation in all of Southeast Alaska.”

One of the conservation measures the Haines Fish and Game office recommended is limiting subsistence fishing on the Chilkat River to four days a week. Another recommendation is to delay subsistence fishing in the Chilkat Inlet until mid-July.

Those and other limitations may be implemented this summer to try to stop the declining Chinook returns.