The Chilkat River as seen from Mount Ripinsky in summer of 2017. (Emily Files)

The Chilkat River as seen from Mount Ripinsky in summer of 2017. (Emily Files)

Adult king salmon are returning to the Chilkat River at historically low numbers. The population has been decreasing over the last 10 years. In 2016, the Chilkat saw the lowest escapement estimate in about 25 years. Preliminary counts for 2017 show the downward trend is not letting up and fishing restrictions are likely to continue next year.

But let’s start with some good news. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preliminary abundance estimate for large Chinook in the Chilkat River is 1,231 fish. That’s about double what biologists were expecting. They only predicted the return of about 600 mature kings.

Brian Elliot is a Chinook stock assessment biologist with Fish and Game in Haines.

“So it’s not good by any means but it’s a little bit of a positive sign from where we were approaching the season,” says Elliot.

The not so good news? That number is still far below the minimum escapement goal. And, it’s fewer fish than 2016.

“It’s about 150 fish lower than last year,” says Elliot. “The final escapement estimate last year was 1,380 fish. So we’re still in that downward trend but we’re hoping to get away from that, you know, in upcoming years.”

Fish and Game gets this information from a mark-recapture project they do in June, July and August.

“Mark-recapture is pretty simple,” says Elliot. “So we capture and tag fish in the lower Chilkat River between seven and nine mile.”

That’s the start of their adult spawning migration.

“We have a known tag population then that’s in the river, going up to their spawning grounds,” says Elliot.

Next, biologists go up to the spawning grounds.

“We go to those spawning areas, we inspect fish for the marks we apply in the lower river, that gives us a mark percentage of the entire population,” says Elliot. “And in a simple sense, that’s a ratio which we use to estimate the drainage-wide population.”

So, what happened this year, that made the run stronger than Elliot originally thought it would be?

“We had a positive sign from a particular age class and that’s brood year 2012,” says Elliot. “So those are the offspring of the spawning population in the year 2012. They showed us almost nothing last year, we had 195 total run from that age class. And this year the total run from that age class was 1,150 fish as five-year-olds.”

That could mean good things for upcoming years, too.

Fish and Game took a number of conservation steps this year. Commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries in the Upper Lynn Canal all faced restrictions aimed at limiting the catch of Chilkat kings.

For the first time in recent history, the commercial and sport harvest of Chinook was shut down throughout Southeast.

“I mean it definitely helped,” says Elliot. “It didn’t reduce harvest to zero but for this year’s run we had about a 10 percent harvest rate, which is pretty low. So I think overall the management actions did help pass more fish through to the spawning gravels.”

Elliot says they are likely to implement similar restrictions next year. Though, it’s still too early to say for sure.

“It’s a conservation burden for every user of this resource,” says Elliot. “Obviously the department is going to try to be as responsible as we can to help this stock rebuild. But I would assume there’s going to be some similar actions in the upcoming year at least.”

The abundance estimate is preliminary for now. Elliot doesn’t expect the final number to be very different from the current tally.

Though there is some good news this year, Elliot says Chilkat kings are not ‘out of the woods’ yet.