Sunday, July 10, 2005

Red flag for reds?

My son is in his first season of commercial fishing, with his uncle on a gillnetter in S.E. Alaska. From a few phone conversations between openings I hear a lot of enthusiasm, but also a little disappointment. The frustration has stemmed from disappointing catches of sockeye. He got on the boat just as king fishing was winding down, around the 20th of June.

This may or may not be a harbinger of things to come in other fisheries in Alaska this summer. It might mean that some folks might want to keep their eyes open for added risk though. This is on top of very disappointing runs in Washington and on the Columbia this spring and early summer.

There were good numbers of kings in the Stikine River run this spring, the first gillnet opening in thirty years or so. It's been great fishing in the Petersburg and Wrangell king salmon derbies. These derbies may not attract a lot of outside anglers, but the locals go out in droves. This is a very good thing for the economies of these little towns. I would venture to guess that there are more boats per capita in Petersburg than anywhere else.

Daniel told me they fished hard and did some running around, but never did get into any numbers of sockeye heading up the Stikine. I got to thinking about the story I saw on the disappearing act the sockeye headed into Lake Washington pulled. There was a major shortfall in that run just recently, to the point that the Indians aren't even going to take their subsistence allowance. Now that is a disaster.

When you have to save every last fish for spawning at the expense of some needy folks, it becomes real personal. Not that I'm going to yell and thrash out in the surf at Linclon City, but you tend to want to know what's going on.

The other red flag in ocean survival of salmon was the collapse of the Columbia River run of king salmon this spring too. They had to keep the sports anglers off the river. Guides had to refund the deposits of clients and the Indians went short too. The only groups that are still doing fine are the sealions at the Bonnevile Dam and at the Ballard Locks.

I could give the numbers of the expected runs and what showed up, but the Indians not getting enough for their tables says it all. I just hope this is most of the bad news.

Except that the sockeye run in Bristol Bay started out real slow too. They were starting to get good numbers on the Fourth of July, which is the date you have to see some fish to indicate any kind of a run at all. But managers are saying that the run won't come in nearly as good as the 25 million fish they expected.

I started to get worried back in '91 when at the State Office Building, affectionately known as the S.O.B. The state had just dumped a lot of money into the breakwaters at St. Paul and St. George, including all the money earmarked for harbors maintenance around the state. I wondered what environmental risks there might be to this investment so I started talking to the scientists in Fairbanks and anywhere I could.

It was disconcerting to hear that there were warm bands of water near the surface in the northern Gulf of Alaska and at a depth in the Bering Sea. Sometimes as much as four degrees. I know that when my kids get a fever of just one degree, I start to hit the panic button. Don't know how that correlates. But the scientists were also saying back then that the pot-hole lakes in Canada were showing marked reductions in stream flow.

Canada's conditions may be different than Alaska's, but about then the chum runs on the Yukon started to have trouble. Chum spawn in the little side streams, and the Yukon comes out of Canada to begin with. I'm sure some of our fisheries managers could give an analysis of any possible correlations. I thought I saw in the State's commentary on U.S. Oceans Policy though, that there wasn't much research being done on this kind of thing. That there are 325,000 miles of salmon stream in Alaska, so what's the use.

It occurs to me that a lot of government types still don't view fishermen as business men and women who have to budget, make plans, count their opportunity costs, etc. It's almost like the fishing industry is just expected to stay as much in the dark as the juvenile salmon who might swin into unhealthy waters out in the ocean.

Is all the industry gets from the government in the way of information is , "oops, we lost our run." And the processors just adjust their ex-vessel prices to make up for lack of volume, as well as market vagaries. I'd put money on one researcher, hired by all the regional seafood development associations in Alaska, coming up with some answers that would be an acceptable explanation. After all, we have satellites that will measure anything on earth, including the health of the tree in your back yard. You can pay for one to take a picture of your car in your driveway if you want.

Someone may have a handle on what is going on, but my experience tells me someone isn't talking. I remember the Corps of Engineers telling me to "don't bring that up" when I mentioned some environmental risk they hadn't mentioned in a harbors report. And I still remember the economist at Key Bank in Anchorage still talking up the real estate market, as people were streaming over the Canadian border after dropping off their keys with their bank in Anchorage.

Sometimes is what you get out in the ocean is one type of forage food for young salmon being replaced by another less nutritious one. One summer in the Bering Sea, there was some alarm because diatoms, who have a shell, had displaced the usual plankton that young sockeye feed on. It would be like us trying to eat our dungeness crab fins, feathers and all.


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