While the boats have long been tied up in the harbor, Haines’ fisheries managers are just finishing this year’s analysis of Lynn Canal’s salmon.
KHNS’ Berett Wilber looks at takeaways from this year’s fishing season.
Haines’ staple salmon, the sockeye, had a bad year. But it wasn’t so bad for Haines fishermen — thanks to chums.
Wyatt Rhea-Fournier is one of Haines’ salmon management biologists.
“Even though we had low returns to the Chilkoot system of sockeye, and low harvest of sockeye, we had excellent, above-average harvest of chum,” he said. “Which rounded out the year for everybody, and made it so everyone could make their boat payments.”
It’s Rhea-Fournier’s job to figure out what’s going on with Lynn Canal salmon in real time.
“There’s a lot of modelers that would love to tell you they could model the world. I’m more of a guy where I want to see it. I want to see what’s going on,” he said.
This year, he had to find the balance between sockeye and chum — making sure fishermen weren’t catching too many of the former, while still hauling in plenty of the latter. But how to do that when the fish are milling around together at the bottom of the sea?
Rhea-Fournier uses measurements like a painter would use colors: by layering them up, he can create an overall picture of what salmon are doing.
“You can try to predict as much as you want, but to me, it’s those in-season observations of how many fish are coming into the lake, how many fish are getting caught, that allow you to make a good management decision.”
He uses historical data to come up with a basic foundation — how many salmon usually come back?
Then he adds two real-time, “in-season” measurements: harvest and escapement data. How many fish have been caught already? And how many fish are “escaping” fishermen to get upstream and spawn?
Using harvest and escapement totals, he can make a good estimate of how many salmon are out there. Then, he can figure out if too few fish are spawning, or if fishermen are catching too many.
Lynn Canal is an especially complicated place to manage fish because it supports two separate stocks of sockeye: fishermen catch both Chilkat and Chilkoot sockeye. They have to be accounted for independently.
Of course, you can’t tell the difference by looking at them. Fishermen rely on the biologists to make sure they’re not catching too many of either — and Haines managers have a unique solution to keep them separate.
“Our port sampling team goes in and takes genetic tissue from those fish. We basically have a little over a week turnaround, and they can tell me the genetic composition of those stocks — where they’re going,” he said.
Fishermen depend on Rhea-Fournier and his team to make sure both Chilkat and Chilkoot stocks are protected . . . while still allowing them to make a profit.
“This year, we had low returns to Chilkoot, so we pushed all our fishermen over towards the Chilkat side. And we closed that inlet going into Chilkoot. That way they could still catch sockeye, they just weren’t catching fish that may be going to a low escapement,” he said.
But as Rhea-Fournier knows, dealing with low sockeye runs in-season is different than knowing why they happen, and working to prevent them.
So what caused this year’s low run? Rewind five seasons, he says. Sockeye born in 2012 returned to spawn this summer, and that year — escapement numbers were actually too high.
“We put too many fish in, we think. If you put too many fish into a cold, silty lake, you start to get density dependence where you might have not enough room for all those little fish,” he says.
“Density dependence” means density-dependent mortality — when crowding and lack of food kills baby fish before they reach the ocean. Because sockeye numbers were so low this year, that shouldn’t be an issue in 2023.
And this year, Haines fishermen got a lucky break — thanks to chum salmon. Juneau-area hatchery DIPAC saw record returns for Lynn Canal chum — far beyond what was predicted.
“One of the great things about being able to have a multi-species fishery is that if you have a year where the sockeye aren’t returning, you may have a year where the chum are. By the end of the year, our fishermen were telling me they were pretty happy,” Rhea-Fournier said.
Rhea-Fournier can be happy, too: by the end of the month, all his research will be presented to the public, as Fish and Game works on a stock assessment over the winter. He has no more fish to count — at least until June.