Tag Archives: fishing

Some good salmon news

The Nushagak River Watershed

Much of Alaska is seeing diminished returns of salmon this summer. One bright spot is Bristol Bay, and in particular, the Nushagak River. Bristol Bay is the place to be for salmon, and it is really hot in 2021. The Nushagak saw a record number of sockeyes caught last week, with more than 1,820,000 and 1,770,000 fish landed on consecutive days. That’s seeing a lot of red.

The only way to fly (in)


Chum lookin’ Glum

Salmon strips

We already knew that the King Salmon run for the Yukon River was going to be dismal, but now word is coming out that the chum run looks to be equally bleak. This is a real blow to subsistence users throughout the Yukon basin and all its tributaries.

At the end of June, only 31,000 chum salmon had passed the Pilot Station sonar. The historic average for that date is 500,000 chum salmon. The count is the lowest on record.

Not surprisingly, the Chinook and chum salmon fisheries have been closed throughout the Yukon River system due to the low returns.


Frankenfish

A genetically modified salmon, next to a non-modified salmon of the same age.

For the first time, a company in Massachusetts is delivering genetically modified salmon to the dinner tables of U.S. households.

The bioengineered salmon, is actually the genetic mixing of three different fish: Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon and the eel-like, Ocean Pout. The modified hybrid grows to market size in 18 months, which is half what it takes for a salmon to mature in the natural world.

In Alaska, the bioengineered fish are often called Frankenfish, and they have not been well received. A store or restaurant that offers farmed fish, will take heat for it, and often lose customers. I would be very surprised to see anyone in state, offer the genetically modified fish, where fishing for a living, is so vital to the economy.


Sockeye salmon are being caught at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. Fishing should/hopefully improve over the coming weeks. Like every season, the Return of the Sockeye is an inexact science. Bristol Bay is expecting a great return, the Copper River, not so much. For the rest of us in-between? Time will tell.

For the past decade, my little group of salmon chasers have seen full freezers in odd years, and a battle to fill, in even years. I’m looking forward to seeing if that trend continues, as I have a near empty freezer.

Artwork by the ever talented, slightly twisted, and all-Alaskan: Ray Troll


Copper River Run

Early numbers on returning sockeye salmon to the Copper River are not encouraging. Less than 64,000 sockeyes have gone past the Department of Fish & Game’s sonar tower. That is less than half the goal of 148,000 returning spawners, putting 2021 at 13th on the worst year list.

News of the returning numbers come as the personal use, dip net fishery will see its first open window on Thursday June 10. For 96 hours, permitted Alaskans can take home 25 salmon for the head of household, and an additional 10 for each dependent. Only one of these can be a king salmon. This first window will be 72 hours shorter than expected due to the low return.

Salmon prices are sky high right now, with kings going for $19.60 a pound, and sockeyes a respectable $12.60. In 2020 the salmon netted $6.00 and $4.00 respectively.

Commercial fisherman have seen three 12 hour fishing periods in May.


Understory: The Tongass

The Tongass National Forest, outside Ketchikan, Alaska

I was invited to a screening of the new documentary film “Understory: A Journey Into the Tongass“, this past Earth Day.

The Tongass National Forest is one of the last remaining intact temperate rain forests in the world, and the U.S. Forest Service considers it their crown jewel. At 16.7 acres, it’s not difficult to see why.

Map credit: United States Forest Service

The Tongass National Forest was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and today the Forest sees roughly 2 million visitors a year.

The documentary Understory follows three women as they circumnavigate Prince of Wales Island by boat, exploring the forest that is vital to the local salmon fishing industry, and embroiled in the current “roadless rule” debate.

The trailer for Understory is below:


Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve

National Park Week Day II; Today’s Park Theme: Volunteer Sunday

The Chitina River en route to McCarthy

Wrangell-St Elias may very well be my favorite road accessible park in Alaska. Denali is closer, and I visit it the most, but Wrangell-St Elias is a trip of its own. First off, it is the largest National Park at 13.2 million acres. It starts at sea level and rises all the way up to 18,008 feet with the summit of Mount St Elias, which is the second highest peak in the United States.

Mount Blackburn

Within Wrangell-St Elias is four mountain ranges: The Chugach, Wrangell, St Elias, and the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in the U.S. are within the boundaries of Wrangell-St Elias.

If you prefer glaciers, Wrangell-St Elias has you covered with 60% of Alaska’s glacier ice within this park. It has the state’s longest tidewater glacier, North America’s largest piedmont glacier, and the world’s longest valley glacier.

The park offers an endless list of things to do. The hiking here is phenomenal, although established trails are few. The beating heart of this park is wilderness. I have seen the gamut of Alaska wildlife with Wrangell-St Elias.

The Kennecott Mine

The Edgerton Highway runs along the Copper River Valley to Chitina, where the McCarthy Road follows the old CR&NW Railway grade to the Kennicott River. For years, you had to stop there to take a tram across the river to the town of McCarthy and the mines of Kennecott. Today, the tram sits unused, and a walking bridge spans the river.

The Kennecott Mine and company town were named after the Kennicott Glacier, but they missed the spelling by a letter. It gets confusing trying to keep it straight. Copper ore was discovered here in 1900, and a rush soon started. Eventually, Kennecott would have five mines operating, but by 1938 operations had shut down. During that time span, the mines produced over 4.6 million tons of copper ore, and gross revenues of $200 million. I’m not sure what that dollar amount would add up to today. The Kennecott Mines are now a National Historic Landmark District.

McCarthy, Alaska in 1915
McCarthy Hardware in 2011

The population of McCarthy in 1920 was 127. By 2010 it had dropped to 28.

Some of the mines like Jumbo can be hiked to, and the green of copper ore can still be seen in the rocks around the area.

Fishing the Copper and Chitina Rivers is an Alaskan tradition, going back millenniums. Dipnetting for salmon is restricted to Alaska residents, but I can tell you that it is an adventure like no other.

If you want a park that you can disappear into, Wrangell-St Elias may just be the place for you. 2018 saw only 79,450 to the nation’s largest park. Like Alaska in general, that’s a lot of elbow room.

Find your Park!

Alaska’s Bald Eagle Festival

A lone, bald eagle looks out over the Chilkat River; Photo credit: Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve

November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.

Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.

Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.

Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?

One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.


#OptOutside 2020

Proper wildlife distancing, courtesy of National Park Service

With the pandemic encouraging many of us to put off large Thanksgiving gatherings this year, and foregoing the annual insanity of “Black Friday” (an event I honestly have never understood), there remains the opportunity to explore the outdoors.

The current situation is what it is, and we are stuck with it. For the moment, at least. Now, more than ever, why not opt to head outside? Social distancing is a lot easier to accomplish, and it’s good from time to time to remind ourselves that we are still a part of the natural world.

So try to spend some time outside this weekend, but remember to keep your proper wildlife distance.


The shrinking of Alaska’s salmon

Salmon returning home to spawn

Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.

Graph credit: University of Alaska – Fairbanks

The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.

The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.

At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.

Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.

There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.

Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.

Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner