Friday, June 13, 2014

Consideration of Sheefish Spawning Areas on the Kuskokwim River for ACEC Nomination to the BLM: Follow Up Report

June 13, 2014

Georgetown Environmental Coordinator, showing off a sheefish
By: Kate Schaberg, GTC Environmental Coordinator

At a Georgetown Tribal Council (GTC) meeting held in February 2014 with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding the cleanup of the abandoned Red Devil mercury mine, the GTC became aware of various studies that had been conducted on the Kuskokwim River related to mercury in fish tissue.  Matt Varner of the BLM presented information to the GTC, during which, he discussed fish movement and tracking on the river, and mentioned a possible spawning ground that has not been documented before.  The GTC was under the impression that the spawning ground was for sheefish, which later turned out to be false.

In May 2014, the GTC was contacted by the BLM who, as part of its Bering Sea – Western Interior Resource Management Plan (RMP) update, is seeking nominations for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).  Nominations are being accepted until August 29, 2014.  According to the BLM, “ACEC designations highlight areas of BLM-managed public land where special management attention is needed to protect important historical, cultural, and scenic values; fish or wildlife resources, or other natural systems or processes; or human life and safety from natural hazards.” 

 Sheefish are a culturally significant fish species along the Kuskokwim River; they are harvested for subsistence use by many, especially in the middle and upper river.  Sheefish are often caught before salmon in the spring, and offer an opportunity for fresh fish early in the season.  In recent years, king salmon have been in decline and there has been an even greater shift in harvest patterns away from king salmon and more toward whitefish and other salmon species.  Sheefish spawning grounds have very specific needs and occur in small numbers on the Kuskokwim River, as has been documented over the last five years by Lisa Stuby.  Because of this, the habitat in and around the existing spawning grounds needs to be protected, to allow for future productivity of the species.  For all of these reasons, the GTC members and the GTC environmental committee felt that the areas of sheefish spawning on the Kuskokwim would fit the criteria for relevance and importance, which are necessary to be considered as an ACEC by the BLM, and decided to go forth with the nomination process.  The first part of this process was to conduct research on the topic, the area, and to gather necessary materials for the nomination.

After further contact was made with Matt Varner, it was realized that the area brought up at the February meeting was not, in fact, for sheefish.  It was instead for burbot.  In the meantime, I contacted Lisa Stuby, a research biologist who works for the Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) in Fairbanks.  In November of 2012, she published a report on sheefish spawning grounds on the Kuskokwim River (FDS12-65), which provides detailed information about spawning areas documented on the Kuskokwim River. 

Stuby documented three spawning locations on the Kuskokwim River for sheefish as noted in the study, located on the Tonzona, Middle Fork and Big River, all located in the upper Kuskokwim River area.  These are the areas the GTC intended to nominate for ACEC consideration (circled in green on map below).  Once the spawning locations were identified, next it needed to be determined what type of land they were located on. In order for the area to be considered for ACEC nomination, it needs to be on “BLM-managed public land”, as noted above.  Lisa Stuby provided the coordinates of fish locations from her study for dates occurring from 2009-2013, and those were plotted against land status in the region.  I created the map below, which shows that in fact, all three sheefish spawning areas are located on Native land.  For this reason, the areas cannot be nominated for ACEC consideration. 
That being said, it is our hope that special protection will still be given to these areas.  It is our understanding that Lisa has worked very well with the native villages and Tribes in the area, and has received a lot of local input and knowledge for her projects.  She has indicated that those living in the area have a strong desire to protect these spawning areas due to importance of the resource. A copy of this documentation of our efforts/findings has been provided to the villages in the area, so as to avoid any duplication of the effort.  We will also provided a copy to the BLM, despite the fact that the area cannot be nominated for ACEC consideration.  Perhaps the areas can still be considered when determining various uses for the land within the Bering Sea Western Interior RMP. 

After contact with several local residents in the upper Kuskokwim River, I have come to find out that they will be sharing their local knowledge about the areas to the Army Corps of Engineers and others, in hopes that the pipeline planned for the potential Donlin Gold mine will not affect these areas.
As a follow-up step, I will also meet with the GTC to find out if they are interested in researching the possible burbot spawning area referenced by Matt Varner, as a potential nomination for ACEC consideration.  However, based on internal conversations, it is believed that the area described is also located on Native land.
Are you aware of any areas on the Kuskokwim that might fit the criteria for ACEC nomination?  If so, contact me at 907-274-2195 and we will certainly look into it!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Chinook Numbers at the Bethel Test Fishery Are Much Higher This Year than the Past Few...But What Does It Mean?

June 9,  2014

The Upper Boundary line of the Yukon Delta National Refuge in Aniak: Below which is being federally managed (sections 1,2,3) and above which is being state managed (sections 4 & 5)
Unprecedented subsistence restrictions are currently in place on the Kuskokwim River in an effort by all to protect the king salmon run.  

Currently, as of June 9, 2014 – the following restrictions are in place (differences between state and federal regulations noted in bold text):

Salmon fishing is currently closed in all sections of the river.  Harvest of whitefish is allowable based on the following restrictions:
From the mouth of the Kuskokwim to the boundary of the National Refuge border in Aniak:   
Gillnets are restricted to set gillnets, 4-inch or less mesh size not exceeding 60-feet in length. Subsistence fishing with dipnet will adhere to State fishing schedules (AS 16.05.060). Chinook salmon incidentally caught in gillnets may be retained. Chinook salmon incidentally caught using all other gear types must me immediately released. Fish wheels are allowed at this time. All fish wheels have to have a live box containing no less than 45 cu feet of water, must be checked every 6 hours, and all kings caught must be released. 

From the Refuge boundary line in Aniak up to the headwaters:
subsistence fishing for non-salmon species with gillnets is restricted to gillnets with 4-inch or less mesh size not exceeding 60-feet in length and 45 meshes in depth.  Gillnets are NOT restricted to set gillnets in this area. Chinook salmon incidentally caught in gillnets may be retained.  Fish wheels are not allowed at this time.
So the question is: Is it working?
The answer is not so simple, but in simplest terms, from my understanding: It's hard to tell.
Below are the numbers from the Bethel Test Fishery so far, keep in mind they show catch per unit effort on a cumulative basis, so the June 8th number is for total so far, not just June 8th catches: 

Based on numbers alone, it sure looks like the restrictions are working, and that more king salmon are making it past Bethel than previous years.  That's a good thing, but how is the run doing compared to other years, and will escapement goals be met this year?

Here is a graph showing this year's number of cumulative CPUE for Chinook, as compared to 2009-2013, taken from the ADFG website.  Note the resulting escapement results relative to an escapement goal of 65,000-120,000 fish to the left of the graph.  2014 is shown in red. So yes, the numbers look great and so does the comparison graph. But still, never before have we seen these types of subsistence restrictions on the whole river.  In most years, there is usually a lot of subsistence harvest taking place at the same time, and restrictions this year might be making Bethel Test Fish numbers look bigger than they have in other years.  So how are we to compare?  

Unfortunately, I don't have the answers.  The next meeting of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group is to be held on June 17th at 1:30 PM in Bethel.  These meetings always prove to be very informational and valuable.  Input from up and down the river is encouraged and anyone can participate by calling into the teleconference number  1 (800) 315-6338 (MEET) Code: 58756# (KUSKO).

I am hoping that at the next call/meeting, in season managers will have a little bit more information on these numbers, and what it means for escapement.  In the meantime, we'll keep our fingers crossed that all of the effort being put forth by managers and users alike to protect this great resource will prove to be successful. 

Graphs and charts provided by the ADF&G, and can be accessed by anyone at this website. Map provided by FWS, which can be found at this link.