King salmon landed in the commercial troll fishery in the summer of 2019 (Photo courtesy of Matt Lichtenstein)

Alaska’s Board of Fisheries on Sunday agreed to a compromise for king salmon in Southeast that would leave sport fishing bag limits unchanged throughout the season. It’s an attempt to balance the needs of charter fishing businesses and the commercial troll fleet, while setting a priority for resident anglers.

At issue is a new provision of the 2019 Pacific Salmon Treaty agreement that requires Alaska to pay back the following year when the commercial and sport fleets catch more king salmon than they’ve been allocated. The Department of Fish and Game has used in-season management to stay below that number, and that’s meant reducing the resident bag limit on sport-caught kings over the summer, and even prohibiting non-residents from catching them at all.

Charter and lodge operators said clients book trips well in advance and want to be able to keep a king salmon. Many like Ketchikan charter fishing captain Jeff Wedekind asked the Board for a new approach to keeping Alaska’s harvest on target.

“If we have an allocation that doesn’t even allow us to fish or closes us down in the middle, then we can’t run our businesses, people aren’t going to come,” Wedekind said.

Lodge and charter businesses said their packages are based on a minimum of three days of fishing, with the opportunity to catch a king on all three days.

Charter business owner Joel Steenstra of Craig was among those opposing the state’s current strategy of lowering total that non-residents can keep in a year in response to concerns over low abundance. .

“It would kill that fishery for us and we just basically would lose probably a third of our income if we were forced to just have a one or two annual limit there in June because there’s no cohos around typically until about the 10th or 15th of July,” Steenstra said.

Alaska’s annual share of king salmon is split 80 percent and 20 percent between commercial trollers and sport anglers, after a small portion is taken out for commercial seiners and gillnetters. That number changes from year to year, based on the abundance of kings in the previous winter’s troll fishery.  To keep bag limits stable, the charter industry proposed a higher sport percentage when king numbers are down and a lower percentage in times of abundance, but still meeting that 80/20 split over time.

The idea didn’t go over very well.

“The sport charter sector is now making the claim that they of all harvesting groups should not be held to the agreement they themselves helped negotiate, where does this elitist sense of entitlement end?” asked Alaska Trollers Association president Matt Donohoe of Sitka. He and other commercial fishermen like Brett Stillwaugh of Wrangell, didn’t see any logic in one side getting a greater share of kings, when fewer fish are around.

“I’m opposed to any borrowing of king salmon quota from other user groups in years of low abundance,” Stillwaugh said. “I for one on lower abundance years need more fish, not less. Giving up fish when the troll fleet needs them the most is counterproductive to our fishery.”

Alaska has seen reductions in its king catch under the Treaty negotiated between U.S. states and British Columbia. Sport and commercial fleets catch a mix of chinook, but the bulk of those come from rivers in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Since 2018 some local runs have been listed as stocks of concern because of low numbers. That’s meant sport fishing closures throughout the inside waters and closures or reduced area for commercial fishing.

“So far commercial trollers have carried the weight of king salmon conservation in Southeast Alaska,” said Sitka troller Jacquie Foss. “We have had more than a 60 percent reduction in king salmon from several Treaty negotiation. We lost six weeks of winter troll fishery and non resident charters are allowed to fish. Trollers lost access to spring harvest areas due to stocks of concern. After listening to staff’s reports these are likely to endure and may be expanded,” she said.

But there was an opening for compromise. Prior to the meeting, the trollers association and sport fishing group the Territorial Sportsmen issued a joint statement asking for a resident preference in king salmon management.

“As you have heard the major threat to the resident king salmon sport fishery is the non-resident sport fishery in outside waters,” said Larry Edfelt of Juneau, representing the Territorial Sportsmen. “The non-resident fleet now takes two thirds or more of the sport chinook quota and its catching power is so great that it could take the entire sport quota before the end of June, thus closing both the resident and non-resident chinook fishery for the entire summer,” he said.

The board had proposals seeking to close or reduce non-resident fishing to ensure it stays open for residents as anglers neared the sport allocation. Another sought to direct any unused fish in late summer to the commercial fleet. And fishery managers submitted proposals seeking direction from the board on in-season management, payback of overages, a resident priority and a long-term average for the sport-troll split.

Ultimately stakeholders hammered out a compromise that maintains the current 80/20 split but won’t lead to in-season closures. Non-residents will still see annual limits drop in summertime. Residents will have a higher bag limit than non-residents, and uncaught kings later in the summer could go to commercial trollers.

Patrick Fowler is the Division of Sportfish’s area management biologist for Petersburg and Wrangell and explained the provisions of that agreement.

“So this would manage the sport fishery with no in-season management,” Fowler said. “So these bag and possession limits that I’ve announced would be maintained throughout the season even if the department projects that the allocation of the sport fishery would be exceeded or if there’d be remaining allocation on the table and that would be transferred to the troll fishery.”

Fowler believed that the compromise would achieve the 80/20 split over time.

The commercial troll season in late summer ends up acting as a buffer. If the sport fishery goes over its allocation the department can cut back time for commercial fishing. But if Alaska hasn’t reached it’s all gear catch by that time the department can provide more time for commercial trolling to make up the difference.

If the combined catch exceeds Alaska’s share, the overage will be paid back the following year by subtracting it from the total, regardless of which gear group was responsible for going over.

Board member Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River thanked the stakeholders for arriving at a compromise.

“I know this was very complicated, very difficult to navigate especially for me, not participating in the fishery in any capacity,” Godfrey said. “So I really appreciate the effort and the stick-to-itiveness to get there. I know it’s a difficult lift and I really appreciate the time and contribution everybody did in good faith. It makes our life a lot easier. I was happy to sit here in silence rather than deliberating a bunch of proposals that a lot of people weren’t going to like the votes on most likely.”

The board voted 5-0 to approve that compromise language, with John Jensen of Petersburg sitting out the vote. Willow board member John Wood voted against a companion proposal on allocation and payback of overages but it still passed 4-1.

The management plan is regionwide. However, conservation measures for salmon stocks of concern are still expected. But on a positive note, based on winter troll catch rates, Alaska’s share of kings is actually up this year, 261,300 fish for all gear groups, up 44,700 from last year.