Study AttemptsTo Pinpoint Salmon As They Hit Rivers

     King salmon runs to the rivers of Cook Inlet are down again this year. Complicating matters for Fish and Game managers are the strong sockeye runs that commercial and personal use fishers depend on. After last year’s disastrous fishing season, the Parnell administration launched a 5-year, $30 million effort to find out more about salmon life cycles in the ocean.

     One of the studies under way is trying to figure out where kings and reds are hanging out in the water just before they return to the rivers.

     Canadian researcher Dr. David Welch makes his way out of the cold waters of the Kenai River on a recent Saturday afternoon. He’s working beneath the waves of the Kenai and the Kasilof, placing electronic receivers for a tracking study that will help shed some light on exactly where in the water Chinook and sockeye salmon are as they approach the rivers.

     “The receiver will know the date and the time that each fish went by by the serial number on the tag, but also the depth of the animal. That depth information is critical because if we can establish that there’s a significant difference in the  depth that the chinook are migrating in, and they’re thought to be deeper, then conceivably, the nets can be shortened up so that they’re hung from the surface, but don’t hang down as far as they do now. The sockeye fishermen can catch their quota of sockeye, which is big. And avoid bycatch of chinook,” Dr. Welch said.

     Dr. Welch has been studying pacific salmon for decades. In 2000, he started his own company, Kintama. The goal was to provide science and data that might explain declines in salmon stocks up and down the Pacific coastline of North America.

     “They’re puzzles. They’re multi-dimensional Rubick’s Cube. How do you put all this equipment together? How do you keep it in place, how do you get it back? And then how do you take the data and get something that’s actually worth while and justifies the cost of the research,” Dr. Welch said.

     The cost for this research is just under $700,000. With this study, the Department of Fish and Game is looking to answer four basic questions: 

     * What are the differences in entry patterns of Chinook and sockeye salmon into the ESSN fishing district in relation to date, tide stage, wind velocity, etc?

     * What are the differences in vertical distributions of Chinook and sockeye salmon as they enter the ESSN fishing district?

     * What are the differences in migration rates of Chinook and sockeye salmon in relation to tagging date and fish length?

     * How do tidal fluctuations affect the milling behavior of Chinook and sockeye salmon in the Kenai River estuary?

     Efforts like this can bring together strange bedfellows.  Commercial and sportfishing groups stretching from the Kenai Peninsula up to the Mat-Su Valley recently signed off on a few research areas they all support. None of it’s real groundbreaking stuff, but consensus between groups like the commercial-friendly Alaska Salmon Alliance and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association is almost as rare as king salmon seem to be these days.

     “We did come to agreement on a big one; genetics studies. We’re all very supportive of expanding genetic analysis because of the diversity in the composition of the stocks that come into Cook Inlet,” said Arni Thompson, executive director of ASA.

     Being able to identify things like what river a fish came from could go a long way in helping to tailor management decisions. Set net fishing for sockeye was shut down almost entirely last year, triggered by a shutdown of king fishing in the river. Both sides criticized that decision. They said it was like performing surgery with a chainsaw. The restrictions were too broad.

     “You know, we can all argue about allocations, but one thing we can coalesce around is getting better information,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai Sportfishing Association.

     “And agreeing on what type of research is necessary. And so I think you’re seeing some agreement between different user groups, saying hey, let’s work towards getting better information to use for management.”

     Dr. Welch says his research is showing the saltwater environment to be a dangerous place for salmon. Survivability in the open water is going down. And for any number of reasons. It could be a food source problem. It could be temperature changes. It could be the often-cited by catch problem. He says more ocean research is just beginning to make people down south rethink management priorities.

     “Does it really make sense, with a lot of sharks and other things with big teeth in the ocean, to drop them off in a rough neighborhood, if in fact the survival is worse there?  We’re early days in doing this, and there’s legitimately lots of skepticism about whether we’re right. But for the first time, people are saying oh, maybe we should be rethinking this. Maybe it’s not appropriate to say get them to the ocean as fast as possible. What we thought or what our assumptions were, may not be correct,” Dr. Welch said.

     Dr. Welch is tagging fish throughout the month of July down by Homer. He’ll mark 70 sockeye and 70 chinook by surgically implanting tiny transmitters. When the fish swim over the array laid out at the mouth of the Kenai and the Kasilof, the data will come in. A final report is due to Fish and Game in March. If you catch one of the salmon that’s been tagged for the study, here’s how to pick up your $100 reward.