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Chignik’s escapement goals will change, but separate early and late run goals remain

The Chignik River weir in July 2021.
Izzy Ross
/
KDLG
The Chignik River weir in July 2021.

After days of testimony, the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted to change escapement goals for Chignik’s early and late sockeye runs, which have been severely depleted for years. But it will maintain an important precedent: Two separate goals for the early and late sockeye runs.

Escapement is the number of fish that make it to their spawning grounds. The proposal to combine the two escapement goals came from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Many Chignik residents testified against it.

Some, like commercial fisherman Axel Kopun, worried that it would harm biodiversity and hurt the stocks in the long term.

“The department has also failed to model the possible negative effects of these drastic changes and the impact it will have on the genetic diversity, subsistence and commercial fishermen of the Chignik area,” Kopun told the board. “This process has not been open and transparent nor peer reviewed, as good science must be.”

Chignik’s runs crashed in 2018 and have been extremely low since then. That year, the sockeye fishery was shuttered in an attempt to reach escapement goals, but the run did not materialize, and low returns in 2019, 2020, and 2021 left commercial and subsistence fishing nets empty.

The state designated Chignik’s early sockeye run as a stock of concern last spring, and it designated Chignik kings a stock of concern last October. The decline in the runs has meant less opportunity to traditionally harvest fish.

“We remember the days when we used to share,” Tony Gregorio, president of the Chignik Lagoon Village Council, testified before the board. “Somebody cuts caribou, and everybody got a piece. Somebody caught a bunch of fish. It was spread out on everybody. But we're starting to feel the crunch on a lot of these things. It's got no more caribou around. Moose are hard to find. Salmon subsistence is, if you're not on top of it, you're not going to get it because sometimes it goes pretty fast.”

The department said the single escapement goal could allow commercial fishermen to harvest more fish sustainably.

But that claim came under scrutiny during public testimony.

“There is zero scientific basis for supporting proposal 105,” University of Washington fisheries professor Dan Schindler told the board.

He said the runs are independent of each other and should be managed as such, especially since one is a stock of concern.

“You run the risk of preventing recovery of that early run,” Schindler said. “So you may have interim within season escapement objectives, but without accountability, which is what occurred when you had an early run escapement goal that was explicit, you run the risk of over-harvesting that early stock.”

During board deliberations, Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department’s review shows that a single escapement goal would allow fishermen to maximize how many fish they can sustainably harvest.

“I’m convinced a single escapement goal meets our obligations as a department to maximize yield,” he said. “And I think we can manage discreet stocks. We do it in the Cooper River, we do it in other drainages using single escapement goals. So I stand behind the staff’s decision to have a single escapement goal.”

Vincent-Lang said the escapement goals proposed by the board probably won’t allow for the largest sustainable harvests possible.

But Board Chair Märit Carlson-Van Dort said stakeholders had expressed their willingness to forego harvest to allow the runs to recover. The board passed her amendment, which created optimum escapement goals for both the early and late runs. It lowers the early run's goal by 50,000 fish, and narrows the goal range for the late run. It also increases the escapement necessary to open commercial fishing.

“That’s intended to ensure a strong start to escapement and enough to provide a decent and reasonable opportunity for subsistence harvest in that area,” she said. “We heard in public testimony that these runs are very distinct. They are visibly distinct, they look different, they taste different, there’s a lot of things that are different about them and consequently they’re used differently by subsistence users.”

Carlson-Van Dort also said that Fish and Game didn’t allow enough time for the public to review what she called a “wholesale, tectonic change” in the fishery’s management.

Both of Chignik's sockeye runs met their escapement last year — the first time since the 2018 crash.

The board deliberated on Chignik’s proposals and its action plans Monday.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.