Consistently low returns of Chinook or “King” salmon are prompting the local government in Haines to take action. The Borough is turning to the public to help find solutions with input from Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other stakeholders.
The Haines Borough will host a Town Hall meeting this Friday. That’s to talk about a decline in the king salmon run that impacts Chilkat Valley residents and fishermen.
“I hope that it will be creative and productive,” said assembly member Tom Morphet, who organized the meeting.
“You know, this isn’t about finger pointing. [It’s] to say to Fish and Game, ‘You’re not alone, we’re here as well.’ The borough has different pockets of funding, that it may or may not be willing to make available.”
He says it’s important to the community. So he invited representatives from local tribes and the sport and commercial fisheries to speak and set aside time for a presentation from the Department of Fish and Game. Then, he’s asking the community for ideas about how to build the fishery back.
King salmon is considered a great delicacy worldwide and is part of regional identity. In Haines, locals can boast that there are runs of all five salmon species in the Chilkat River.
“And if this runs continues to decline we won’t be able to say that,” he said.
“It would be a great loss, I think in the moral sense, to our community if we were to lose this magnificent species.”
Restrictions are changing the regional role of king salmon: Haines once hosted a yearly King Salmon Derby, but it has been cancelled for years. And the annual Gilnetters Fisherman’s Barbecue once served kings, but now grills up sockeye.
Mayor Jan Hill agreed to moderate the town hall since Morphet will be out of town for the meeting.
“I care about the king salmon and I like to eat them and I would like to eat some again one of these days and its been awhile,” she said.
She says Haines is known for intense community involvement, but this kind of Town Hall is a first for her.
“I don’t recall us ever rallying around salmon because i think right is the worst condition our salmon runs have been in my lifetime — and I’ve been here my whole life.”
ADF&G says extremely poor marine survival rates are a part of the population problem. Long term marine survival for Chinook fell below one percent recently, meaning that for every hundred smelt that go to sea only one will return. They think rising air and ocean temperatures are part of the cause. The management strategy is to keep as many fish in the river and spawning as possible.
The Assembly invited Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, but he couldn’t make it. He says he’s working to schedule a trip to Haines and in the meantime, he is anticipating the feedback.
“You know, these are their resources. They’re not mine. I’m entrusted to manage them,” he said.
“But certainly, I can’t manage them, without hearing from them as to what their concerns are and what they think that we should be doing with their resources. So we are open to listening. We’re open to discussions, and we welcome it.”
Haines isn’t the only community weathering a downturn in king population. Statewide Chinook runs have been well below their escapement goals for over a decade. He says restrictions and closures, like the one at Cook Inlet up North, are tough decision to make, but necessary for the future of the fisheries. He says that just because the fishery in Haines has fewer fish by an order of magnitude doesn’t make it less important.
“If you’re living in a small community, and you have a small run, the impact of your community may be just as great as having a big community,” he said.
The downturn is serious enough that the federal government allocated over $20 million in fisheries disaster relief money to the state several years ago. And $5 million in federal and state funds goes directly to the Southeast region each year to support Chinook salmon research and the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
Vincent-Lang says that investment may be turning the tide in the Southeast region at least. King numbers are improving, though they aren’t reaching the escapement goal.
“We’re probably going to be below our desired numbers, but they’re going to be above forecast. Which indicates to me that we’re starting to see some signs, at least in Southeast Alaska, that some of those books and stocks may be turning around.”
He says he’s cautiously optimistic. The meeting in Haines will be held on Friday at 3:30 in Assembly Chambers.