The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) used the task force process to present the results of the department’s Run Reconstruction and Interim Escapement Goal Recommendation for Kenai River Late-Run Chinook Salmon. After nearly a decade of stock assessment challenges, ADFG has recommended a new escapement goal that is significantly lower than the old goal and brings with it a list of uncertainties. The old goal based on split beam sonar was a Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) of 17,800 – 35,700. The new goal is a SEG of 15,000 – 30,000 and is measured by counting king salmon with the newer and more accurate Didson sonar and expanding the Didson count by a factor of 1.31 to account for fish not counted by the sonar beam in past years.
As noted by department staff during their presentation of the new king escapement goal, there are at least three aspects of their analysis and recommendation that argue for cautious application of this new goal. First there is no brood year return data to support a SEG of less than 24,000; second, an acknowledgement that we are experiencing low production of king salmon, most likely a result of ocean conditions; and third, the expansion factor of the Didson count adds risk to fish stocks.
In KRSA’s proposed Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Step-Down Management Matrix, our position was to accept ADFG’s recommended SEG as the primary management “target,” but acknowledge the uncertainty around this interim goal by applying the precautionary principle described in the Policy for Management of Sustainable Salmon Fisheries (PMSSF – 5 AAC 39.222). The precautionary principle would be embodied by creating a management strategy that assures achievement of escapements within the confines of the SEG. This management strategy would require department managers to begin to “tap on the brakes” as the projected escapement of late-run Kenai River king salmon fell into the lower bound of the SEG. In this escapement range, which we labeled as the precautionary zone, regulations would become increasingly restrictive if the projection continued to decline. We came to this proposed course of action after a thorough evaluation of the recommended SEG of 15,000 – 30,000 (the target for management) and discussions with department managers about their ability to hit the target (management precision). Managers stated that their precision was on the order of one-half the size of the target or roughly plus or minus about 7,000 fish. In our proposal the precautionary zone extends from 15,000 to 22,000 kings.
In this part of the SEG range, managers would begin to tap on the brakes when escapements were projected to fall below a “trigger” of 22,000 and there would be no specific date on which this call would be required. In-season assessment varies from year to year and it is our desire that managers make important calls like this when the data tells them the time is ripe rather than on a fixed date that may or may not work from year to year. It is our desire that escapements of greater than 15,000 be realized on each and every year. If escapements of at least 15,000 cannot be achieved all fisheries would close.
In contrast to KRSA’s position to accept the ADFG proposed interim SEG from 15,000 to 30,000 and to manage in a precautionary manner the closer one got to the lower bound of the goal, set netters on the task force proposed something quite different. Their initial proposal was to stake out a claim that it was perfectly acceptable to fish below the minimum escapement goal of 15,000, all the way down to 11,000 kings. They proposed creating an Optimal Escapement Goal (OEG) of 11,000 to 30,000 and use the lower bound of the interim SEG, 15,000, as a trigger for managers to begin slowing down the fisheries.
One of the “compromises” brought forth in the Kramer proposal was to raise the lower end of the proposed OEG to 13,000, which is still below the lower bound of the proposed interim SEG. There is very weak scientific justification for any lowering of the lower bound of ADFG’s proposed escapement goal recommendation. With only model derived theoretical “yields” below 23,000, we don’t know what a return of 15,000 will produce let alone 11,000. It is a major red flag to KRSA and most others in this discussion that the productivity of king returns in recent years have been a lot closer to one to one than the run reconstruction model prediction of three to one, and that the model is based on inferences and extrapolations from a very limited data set.
Betting on very high future production from very low escapements is very risky in our opinion, but that viewpoint was not shared by set netters or their supporters. From their perspective, it would be normal to fish below the lower bound of 15,000 and only begin to take conservation measures below that point. But as task force co-chair Webster pointed out during the meeting, the BOF has never approved an OEG for king salmon that has a lower escapement threshold than its existing SEG or BEG.
Another difference between proposals was that in the commercial fisheries oriented proposal, a trigger date of July 21 was put forth from when any fishery management decisions could start to restrict fisheries. But ADFG managers were clear during the meeting that they did not want a fixed date in the management plan, as it was not clear what should occur if the projection is available at an earlier date. In contrast, the KRSA management matrix left it up to the ADFG managers to decide if and when any restrictive management actions are warranted.
Hence with regard to the escapement objective, two very different approaches were put forth during the task force meetings and there was no consensus by sport and commercial partisan factions to support either approach. Adoption of the set net approach would have us fish below the recommended SEG of 15,000 – 30,000 and only start to take conservation measures after July 21 if the final escapement projection was less than 15,000, and only stop fishing if it then fell below some point between 11,000 to 13,000 fish.
We cannot agree to the course of action proposed by set netters and their supporters. Our position is based on the belief that exploiting Kenai kings at a consistently high level during a period of low returns is a significant risk that could very well depress future production, prolong the period of poor runs, and reduce future yields. Couple this with a confluence of chance events, such as higher than average exploitation rates due to big sockeye runs and poor ocean survival conditions for the next king generation, we could very well find ourselves at a point where the stock is not healthy. By definition, allowing user groups to continue fishing until we are close to 30% below the new lower bound of the escapement goal of 15,000 does not meet a critical part of the task force mission. In part three, we will examine the concept of sharing the burden of conservation during times of low king salmon abundance.