The F/V Resource pulls salmon up in a gillnet during a summer opener. (Berett Wilber)

When the Board of Fish finished its triennial meeting last week, action plans were passed to protect king salmon disappearing from the Chilkat and other rivers around Southeast.

The next step? Breaking the plan to fishermen.

As expected, commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries will feel a pinch as they start harvesting salmon this year. Many will see repeats of last summer’s restrictions, including subsistence and charter fishermen. Gillnetters and trollers will see their fishing access whittled down even farther.

Gillnetting is the primary commercial fishery in Lynn Canal. Gillnetters target sockeye from Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers, and chum from DIPAC hatchery near Juneau.

But they occasionally net kings. With 2017’s emergency restrictions imposed on the fishery, managers estimate the gillnet fleet caught just under 5 percent of the total harvest of kings headed up Lynn Canal to spawn: about ten fish, according to their models. Haines’ Fish and Game biologist, Wyatt Rhea Fournier, says the Board of Fish set up new rules to steer fishermen around those kings.

“The gillnetters did have to take more restrictions when it comes to time and area,” he says. “Most of that is happening just in the couple weeks of the fishery. We have our highest overlap with king migration in the first three weeks.”

Upper Lynn Canal is divided into two fishing areas (see map): the north (15-A), and the south (15-C). Both areas will see night closures, to protect young king salmon who come out after dark.

The 2018 Upper Lynn Canal gillnetting map (ADF&G).

For the first five weeks, 15-A is only open on the East Side of the Canal, south of Eldred rock.

For the first two weeks, 15-C is open in the boat harbor, where chums from DIPAC congregate, and the area south of Vanderbilt Reef.

After that, Fish and Game will make in-season decisions about expanding fishing areas for gillnetters.

Will Prisciandaro has been a Lynn Canal gillnetter for nine years, and he represents Haines in USAG, the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association.

“I believe there are 57 and 60 gillnet permits in Haines, out of 473 in Southeast right now,” he says.

Prisciandaro attended the meeting, weighing in as board members used Fish and Game data to figure out where king salmon might be during the summer. They consulted with biologists and fishermen to come up with new guidelines.

“Time and area are what make us money,” he says. “So when we get shrunk on time or area, it usually cuts down in overall profits.”

Prisciandaro says he knows restrictions for the gillnet fleet are based on good data, but they still hurt. That early part of the season is a critical time to start earning cash.

“They can track migration of the [Chinooks] up, so they’re basing their restrictions on when they see the movement of those through the different fleets in Southeast, all the way up to the river.”

As the fishery which primarily targets kings, the trolling fleet will share the gillnetters’ pain. Trolling for winter kings may close six weeks early across Southeast. In upper Lynn Canal and Chilkat Inlet, it may remain closed for the rest of the year.

It’ll likely be a tough season for both gear groups, especially for those who were hoping the restrictions they saw last year were enough.

Rhea-Fournier says that’s the scenario sport and subsistence fishermen will see.

“We’d been receiving calls from our charter fishermen: There’s only about three or four boats in Skagway and three or four boats in Haines. They had already been practicing some high conservation measures: catch and release king salmon.” 

One of Fish and Games’ potential ideas going int other meeting was to delay all sport fishing in Lynn Canal.

“Which means those charter fishermen were essentially out of business for the first couple months,” Rhea-Fournier says. “That was of deep concern because they were already beginning to take deposits for charter trips.”

After getting feedback from the fleet, the Board decided to stick with last year’s rules throughout Southeast: you can sport fish for kings, but you can’t keep them. And in high-risk places like Chilkat Inlet, sport fishing at all is forbidden through June.

Vinny Simkin runs the charter business “I Fish Haines,” and says he would have been open to deeper cuts.

Even the catch and release survival rate is mediocre at best. And so to go out and catch and release is . . . I don’t want to say just as detrimental as retaining, but you’re still detrimentally affecting the life of our king salmon.”

Simkin says, given the returns, he stopped fishing for kings last year anyway, to focus on halibut and other species.

Some user groups don’t have that option. Subsistence users of Chilkat salmon stocks are facing the same fishing restrictions as last year, Rhea-Fournier says.

“Last year was fairly unprecedented, in that we did not leave the river open seven days a week. We had reduced it down so it was only open four days a week during the chinook migration.”

The Chilkat River opening at 19 Mile to Wells Bridge, which is open from June 15 through the end of July, will be reduced to four days a week again this year.

The President of the Klukwan Tribal Council, Kimberly Strong, wrote the Board to say those closures are a hardship. Even though they’re designed to protect king salmon, they made it difficult for people to gather enough sockeye to last through the winter, since the fish needs to cure in the dry days of June to avoid getting moldy.

While the new rules for each fishery can at first confuse even the most seasoned mariner, the bottom line is clear. The fewest number of Chilkat River Chinooks ever are predicted to return to this summer, a trend that’s being echoed in king salmon rivers across Southeast. Everyone who depends on salmon in region will face the consequences.