Historically low king salmon returns in the Haines area are impacting every local fishery. Commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen are all working with tighter restrictions. The Tlingit village of Klukwan sits on the banks of the Chilkat River about 20 miles north of Haines. This summer, the village is facing the most restrictive regulations on subsistence fishing in recent memory.
On an overcast morning in late July, Jeremy Strong takes his family’s skiff out on the Chilkat River. His seven-year-old son, Calvin, rides along.
Strong pulls up to two gillnets tied up in a quiet corner of the river.
“I’m gonna start at the bank side of the net and I’m gonna lift the net up out of the water and pick the fish out,” he explains.
There are fish in the net, but the first several are pink salmon, or humpies. He throws those back in the water.
Finally he gets what he’s hoping for.
“And then we got a sockeye!” Strong says.
Strong lives in Sitka for most of the year. He’s a teacher there. But he grew up in Klukwan, and comes back every summer for a couple weeks. He spends much of his time here fishing for his immediate family and his uncles and aunts in Klukwan.
“I spent a lot of time [growing up fishing,] me and my dad. I watched him fillet fish and smoke fish,” Strong says. “It’s just a part of who I am. It’s something I expect to do every year.”
But this year, Strong’s ability to fish has been more limited.
“I really feel that I got lucky with getting almost the amount of fish I want to get,” Strong says. “But being used to fish Monday through Sunday, and then changing that to Wednesday through Saturday, it kind of puts it in a little bit of pinch.”
From mid-June to the end of July, subsistence fishing is normally allowed seven days a week in the part of the Chilkat River near Klukwan. (Between 19 Mile and the Wells Bridge.) But in an effort to protect king salmon, Fish and Game limited that area to four days a week. They also closed Chilkat Inlet to subsistence fishing until late July.
“These are the tightest restrictions that I have any recollection of,” said Kimberley Strong. She is Jeremy’s aunt and the president of the Chilkat Indian Village tribal council.
“A combination of the weather, the shortage of salmon, the restrictions of when we can fish all have had an impact,” Strong said. “It seems like the perfect storm hit us on the river this year. All of these components created a pretty poor year of fishing in Klukwan.”
Strong says salmon is a mainstay for her family and many others in Klukwan. The ‘perfect storm’ of poor weather, slow sockeye runs and new restrictions makes it more difficult to get the fish they need.
“[The subsistence restrictions are] not something we want to do. It’s something we felt we had to do,” said Mark Sogge, a biologist with Fish and Game who manages local subsistence and commercial fisheries.
Strong says she understands conservation measures to protect the kings. But she thinks restrictions should be more tough on certain commercial fisheries that intercept Chilkat salmon.
“I understand the Hawk Inlet and Icy Strait are two of the areas that Chilkat and Chilkoot salmon run through to get up here,” Strong said. “And if they get caught before they can even get here, then what chance is if for our wild stock salmon to return?”
Biologist Sogge says the Fish and Game personnel who regulate those seine fisheries know about these concerns. But they also want to take advantage of huge pink salmon returns.
“And one of the causalities of that is if they happen to be on a lot of sockeye, they catch those as well,” Sogge said. “The seines catch everything. So it is potentially a situation where the seiners could catch more sockeye than we want for escapement reasons.”
Sogge says there is no consistent stock assessment on the seine fisheries in those areas, so he can’t say with certainty what kind of impact they’re having on fish in the Northern Lynn Canal.
As for whether this summer’s restrictions will become the new norm…
“I don’t think that there’s anything set in stone,” Sogge said. “We were trying this this year, we’re going to gauge and see how effective it was from a biological point of view and see how the community feels about it.”
Back out on the river, the Strongs bring back their haul of seven sockeye, which Jeremy and Kimberley say is a pretty low catch. The fish will go to Jeremy’s other aunt, who will be able to make two cases of fresh pack salmon from it.
For the rest of the summer, Chilkat River subsistence fishing is less restricted. Starting Aug. 1, Fish and Game opened a much bigger portion of the river (4 mile to one mile above the Wells Bridge) seven days a week.