The Chilkat River in 2009. The river is one of the four bodies of water nominated for Tier 3 protection. (Dave Bezaire/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Chilkat River in 2009. (Dave Bezaire/Flickr Creative Commons)

The forecast for adult king salmon returning to the Chilkat River near Haines is the lowest in 25 years. I follows a historically low Chinook run last year.

“There’s not going to be any gear groups blamed, there’s not going to be any fisheries blamed,” said Brian Elliot, a Chinook stock assessment biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Haines. He gave a lengthy presentation about what is going on with king salmon at last week’s meeting of the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

There’s something happening to king salmon in Southeast Alaska. Locally, Chilkat Chinook are facing about a 10-year downward trend. In 2016, the escapement estimate was 1,368 large Chinook, fish older than 5 years. That was the lowest estimate since 1991.

Looking ahead to 2017, Elliot says there’s more bad news. The forecast is 634 large fish in-river. That’s the lowest prediction in over 25 years.

It’s not just the Chilkats that have a low forecast. Elliot says it’s a trend around Southeast.

“Every system except for Stikine has below goal forecasts. So that pretty much means that we need to minimize harvests as much as we can to get these stocks back on their spawning gravels,” says Elliot.

He presented the information to the Lynn Canal Advisory Committee, along with information about how they create estimates and what factors could be contributing to the problem. He says it’s not as easy as just pointing at one fishery.

“There are several problems going on at once that are affecting Chilkat stock and others,” says Elliot. “So it’s really just trying to identify the problems that we can fix.”

One important factor Elliot looks at is marine survival. That is, how many smolts are surviving to be mature, returning adults.

“There’s got to be something in the marine that’s causing them to get out of there and mature early,” said Elliot. “Like a hostile environment. Either they’re not finding prey species, they’re trying to avoid mortality from predators and other sources out there. So they’re coming back early.”

So, even if no fish are being caught, Elliot says something is happening to the Chilkat Chinook.

“In the absence of fishing, we’re still not roses and rainbows in the Chilkat,” said Elliot.

But, they’re looking at the impact fisheries have too. For instance, they’re looking at spring trolling. That’s a newer fishery that generally targets hatchery-produced fish and occurs when adult king salmon are returning. Still, Elliot says they’re not placing blame on that one fishery.

“It’s the timing, it’s the coincidence of it,” says Elliot. “We’ve seen some spring troll harvests through the time series. But in the last few years there hasn’t been very much at all. So that’s once again, if you’re looking at a calendar year exploitation rate of 4 percent on the Chilkats, you can easily say that fisheries are not the issue.”

Jim Moore, from the Alaska Troller’s Association, attended the meeting and cautioned against being too hard on the trollers.

“Trollers have taken huge cuts for conservation. So have a heart,” said Moore.

Mark Sogge is a Haines area management biologist with Fish and Game. He brought up a few management strategies that could be used to conserve fish.

“We’re looking at a bunch of different things,” said Sogge. “We’ve already been restrictive in the last several years. Much more restrictive then the Chilkat Chinook management plan calls for.”

Sogge said the local subsistence fishery could see restrictions.

“As far as subsistence fishery we are not going to open up Chilkat Inlet to sub fishing before the 15th of July,” said Sogge. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Rich Chapell, the area sport-fish biologist for Fish and Game, also mentioned some possible strategies.

“Like 2015 and 2016 we’ll probably keep Chilkat Inlet closed to sport fishing again this year,” said Chapell. “We’re thinking about closing a wider area.”

Elliot says researchers and managers met last week to review where they might be able to cut back on harvests. But, he says it’s clear they’re not the only ones interested.

“This is not just a few biologists going forward saying hey we need to do something about this,” said Elliot. “There’s a large amount of public interest and caring about it. These are precious fish, this is a precious resource and we should treat it as such.”

Fish and Game hopes to establish a plan for how to cope with the record low forecast in the next few months.