The Chilkat River. (Abbey Collins)

The Chilkat River. (Abbey Collins)

Alarmingly low king salmon runs in the Chilkat River will likely have ripple effects on a range of local fisheries. Sport fishing near Haines and Skagway will be nearly nonexistent this year and that’s not the only change.

“This will be the first time that we’ve closed the whole Haines/Skagway area to king salmon retention, yeah,” says Rich Chapell is the area sport-fish biologist for Fish and Game.

In 2017, the Chilkat Inlet north of Seduction Point will be closed to king salmon sport fishing from April 15 through July 15. It’s completely closed to retention. Chapell says they’ve tried closing just Chilkat Inlet before.

“In 2015 that worked, in 2016 that wasn’t enough,” says Chapell.

He says, they need to be more restrictive. So this year, Chinook retention will not be allowed in the Lynn Canal north of Sherman Rock, all the way up to Skagway. That means in you inadvertently catch a king you have to release it unharmed.

These restrictions are going into effect because drastic times call for drastic measures. Last year’s escapement estimate for large Chilkat Chinook was the lowest in about 25 years.

“I was just so disappointed last year,” says Chapell. “I was just really surprised how weak the run was, despite our conservation measures. That was quite a wakeup call. I thought we had seen the bottom of low marine survival rates.”

A downward trend has persisted in the area over the last 10 years. In 2017, the in-river run is forecasted to be just 634 mature fish. Chapell says they’ve never seen a return that small. The escapement goal is between 1,700 and 3,500.

He says a big driver of the trend is poor marine survival.

“Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do to increase ocean survival that’s just environmental conditions that are way beyond our power to control,” says Chapell. “But what we can control is the human harvest. So to make the escapement goal we’re reducing harvest of king salmon in all the fisheries in Southeast.”

Chapell says the spring king salmon salt water fishery is one of the biggest for sport fishing in the area. A derby is traditionally held each year, but was cancelled the last two years. With no retention allowed in the area this year, that will be the case again. The Juneau-area derby has also been cancelled, which could mean a few more Chilkat Chinook that might have been intercepted will make it back to the river.

Other nearby fisheries that might impact Chilkat Kings are also likely to see restrictions.

And, there’s more in the works for Haines and Skagway. Fish and Game biologists are still developing new restrictions for subsistence and commercial gillnet fisheries.

Mark Sogge is the area management biologist those two fisheries. He says both will see changes this year. Tentatively, Sogge says the drift gillnet subsistence fishery won’t be allowed in the Chilkat Inlet until mid-July.

In the river, he says there’s traditionally a seven-day-a-week opening from June 15 through the end of July from 19 mile to Wells Bridge. But, he’s contemplating limiting that to four days a week, so there is some time when fish can migrate without being caught.

He’s also planning to put restrictions on the local gillnet commercial fishery. There are three different areas that could be affected.

“For 15A we’re going to implement night closures,” says Sogge. “Probably for the first three weeks of the season. What that does is really cut down on the number of immature Chinook that are caught.”

Then there’s the chum fishery in 15C.

“Probably only be able to have two day openings for the full width of the canal in 15C from Point Bridget, south,” says Sogge. “Any extensions that I give to harvest the enhanced chums will be in what’s called a postage stamp area which is a smaller, well-defined area where the chinook harvest will probably go down.”

And finally, the boat harbor area.

“On the boat harbor side the proposed change there is to keep the fishery within a mile of shore and not go to a seven day a week opening until after the first four openings,” says Sogge.

He’s also planning to implement a six-inch maximum mesh restriction for commercial gillnets for the first two weeks of the season.

Last month, the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee voted to send a proposal limiting the size of subsistence nets to the Board of Fish.

Though the forecast for this year is dismal, Chapell says there is reason to be optimistic about the future of Chilkat Chinook. Last fall, while tagging fish for population research, he says the department marked the highest number of juvenile kings ever, since the tracking started in the 1990s.