by Mark Hieronymus, Sportfishing Outreach Coordinator
TU Alaska Program
Of all the salmon species in Alaska, the king salmon is the most highly regarded. Folks come to Alaska from all over the world for a chance to catch a king on sport tackle, and every year the Southeast commercial troll fleet gears up for the short but intense opener to harvest these valuable fish. The largest of the Pacific salmon, the king attained historical weights approaching triple figures and is considered the sport angler’s prize fish, renowned for its fighting ability and unsurpassed as table fare. For the commercial fisherman, they represent the most value-per-pound of all the Pacific salmon and the fish most folks identify as the symbol of Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The least populous of all the salmon species in Alaska, the king is now facing troubling times as statewide productivity is decreasing and opportunities for both sport and commercial catch of kings are being restricted.
King salmon have very specific spawning requirements, and they favor larger, deeper rivers with large gravel and consistent winter flows. Since most of the rivers and streams in Southeast Alaska are relatively small and fairly short, kings are found in only a handful of the larger rivers, most of them on the mainland coast. The bulk of the Southeast Alaska king salmon population spawns in 4 large trans-boundary rivers – the Taku, Stikine, Alsek, and Unuk rivers. These rivers have a total annual run of about 140,000 king salmon, or about 80% of all the spawning kings in Southeast Alaska, and have shown disturbing downward population trends for the past decade or so for reasons unknown.
“Patterns of Chinook salmon productivity and abundance generally have varied over time and among different areas of Alaska. However, recent declines in productivity, abundance, and inshore harvests appear widespread and persistent throughout Alaska.” (Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment Plan, 2013, ADF&G)
As if this observation from ADF&G wasn’t enough, the state fish of Alaska is now facing yet another threat in the form of ramped-up mining activity in the trans-boundary watershed basins of Southeast Alaska. A major mining boom in northwest British Columbia (B.C.), combined with B.C.’s reduced environmental safeguards and a lack of engagement from the U.S. and Alaska, poses significant risks to downstream fisheries, water quality and livelihoods in Southeast Alaska. This development is occurring under permitting processes and environmental regulations less rigorous than those in the U.S., and has the potential to negatively impact the spawning and rearing habitat of these major king salmon producing systems.
The U.S. and the state of Alaska have spent several decades and millions upon millions of dollars to responsibly manage and conserve king salmon populations in Southeast Alaska, and will no doubt be spending millions more in the coming years in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the factors that affect king salmon productivity. The potential negative impacts of loosely regulated mining activity on the trans-boundary watersheds of Southeast Alaska could negate these years of work and millions of dollars spent – do we really want to take that chance? Can we afford to lose the king salmon economy of Southeast Alaska?
The America’s Salmon Forest Coalition along with Rivers Without Borders and several sport and commercial fishing organizations are asking Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Representative Don Young to request that the U.S. State Department engage with Canadian officials on this matter. It is critical to ensure that salmon habitat and communities in Southeast Alaska downstream from large B.C. mines do not suffer the ill effects of mine pollution entering trans-boundary waterways. As the kings that spawn in Southeast Alaska’s trans-boundary watersheds make their way in from the ocean, they provide harvest opportunities all along their migration routes for sport and commercial use alike. With the future of Alaska king salmon growing more uncertain every year, we can ill afford to lose the limited opportunities that we currently have.