PUBLISHED: 5:17 PM on Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Projections on the upcoming spring king salmon season
Five Questions
On the heels of another salmon season, Brian Glynn, a biologist for the Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, talks about the upcoming season and what to expect.

What is your pre-season forecast for the spring king salmon fishing season in Juneau?

Many of the king salmon caught during the spring near Juneau are bound for the Taku River. In fact, catch sampling of the local sport fishery in the last five years indicates 90% of the harvest in May consisted of Taku River king salmon. So obviously, the number of kings returning to the Taku can influence Juneau's spring king salmon fishing. Other factors such as weather conditions might affect the amount and effectiveness of fishing effort and therefore influence the size of the sport harvest. But in general, it's safe to say that large returns of king salmon to the Taku tend to produce better fishing for Juneau anglers; and conversely, low returns have produced smaller sport harvests.

The 2008 pre-season forecast for king salmon returning to the Taku River is just under 38,000 fish. Past returns of this magnitude, ranging from say 35,000 to 40,000 king salmon, have produced sport harvests that were 1,500 to 2,100 fish or roughly 25 - 45 percent lower than the average sport harvest over the past 20 years.

The largest return of king salmon to the Taku River in the past 20 years is estimated to be 125,000 fish, more than double the average return of about 57,000 king salmon during the same time period. This exceptionally high return occurred in 1997 and coincided with an estimated sport harvest of roughly 5,000 Taku kings. The lowest estimated return of king salmon to the Taku in the past 20 years was approximately 19,000 fish and this coincided with a sport harvest of only 1,400 fish. Mid range returns can produce mixed results in the sport fishery. For example, the largest estimated sport harvest of Taku king salmon of roughly 6,300 fish occurred with a return of about 77,000; above average, but well below the huge 1997 return of 125,000.

How are hatchery king salmon returns different from wild king salmon returns to Juneau?

The Sport Fish Division maintains a cooperative agreement with Douglas Island Pink and Chum Inc. (DIPAC), and funds the hatchery production of king salmon smolt released annually in the Juneau area. As returning adults, these hatchery king salmon show up in the immediate area slightly later than the Taku River stock of king salmon. Harvests of DIPAC hatchery king salmon in the local sport fishery have ranged from about 1,400 to 5,000 fish. Harvests of these fish do not contribute to Alaska's king salmon quota or limit, set under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Therefore, the Department of Fish and Game is able to provide a terminal harvest area (THA) for a sport fishery where the sport bag, possession and annual limits are far less restrictive than the regional king salmon regulations. The Juneau THA is not in effect until it is opened by an Emergency Order issued by the department, which typically occurs on June 1 of each year. The THA usually closes at the end of August. The bag and possession limit for king salmon in the Juneau THA has been in will likely continue to be 4 fish of any size. Hatchery king salmon caught within the THA by non residents do not count toward their annual harvest limit.

Returns of hatchery king salmon to the Juneau area over the past three years have been relatively low, particularly in 2006. The hatchery return in 2007 was somewhat better and this improvement is expected to continue with the 2008 hatchery return.

Although the hatchery program produces fewer fish than the Taku River, high densities of fish in the THA can make for some excellent fishing opportunity that is not often available in the Juneau area.

How are sport harvest limits for spring king salmon fishing set in the Juneau area?

Southeast regional king salmon sport fishing regulations are set each spring and are determined using a model developed by the Pacific Salmon Commission that monitors fluctuations in coast-wide abundance. In years of high abundance, Southeast regional king salmon sport fishing regulations are less restrictive, and more restrictive when abundance is low. These sport regulations have been adopted by Alaska Board of Fish under the Southeast Alaska King Salmon Management Plan. For the most part, the sport fishing regulations under this plan consist of a suite of different bag and annual limits that are to be implemented at specific abundance levels.

Near Juneau, the waters of District 11 can be managed independently for king salmon fishing, but only during years when the number of fish forecasted to return to the Taku River is at a sufficiently high level. Under such a scenario, directed fishing for Taku River king salmon can be implemented. In the sport fishery, "directed" fishing for Taku king salmon means less restrictive regulations will be in effect. These regulations include higher bag limits and the opportunity to use two rods while fishing for king salmon. King salmon harvested near Juneau during years of directed fishing are similar to hatchery king salmon harvests in that they do not count toward Alaska's king salmon quota under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. On years when the forecasted Taku River run is not adequate for directed fishing to occur, king salmon caught in the Juneau area are applied to Alaska's treaty quota; and, sport fishing regulations in the Juneau area are the same as the Southeast regional regulations.

Which factors decide salmon returns each year?

In general, major factors that influence the size of a salmon return include spawning abundance in the parent year, survival rates in freshwater and marine environments, and exploitation rates in the various fisheries.

While too few spawning fish can certainly produce lower returns, having too many spawners in a single river or stream has also been shown to be problematic with certain species such as king salmon. Ideally, there is a range of spawning abundance that typically produces the best returns. Freshwater survivals are greatly affected by the amount of habitat and conditions that are available to support the number of juvenile fish that are produced. Marine survivals can also fluctuate and greatly influence the size of a given return. Many theories abound regarding what marine conditions produce optimal growth and run size. Fishery exploitation rates obviously play a big role and managers typically try to attain specific spawning escapement to rivers and streams by adjusting fishery exploitation accordingly.

For Taku River king salmon, extensive stock assessment programs have been in place for decades to determine spawning abundance, the number of juveniles leaving the river, survival rates, and fishery exploitation rates. These studies indicate the ideal range of spawning abundance for Taku king salmon to be between 20,000 and 30,000 king salmon. Such levels normally produce upwards of two million juveniles that survive at about 5% in the marine waters. In years of directed sport and commercial fishing, exploitation rates for Taku king salmon range between 20-30%. In years without directed fishing, fishery exploitation has been below 10%.

How old and how big are Taku River king salmon?

Taku River king salmon return over a range of ages. All Taku River king salmon spend two years in freshwater and then anywhere from one to five years at sea. This season, as in most, the return is forecasted to be dominated by fish that have spent three years at sea and will weigh between 15 and 30 pounds. Those that spend four years at sea usually weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. Two ocean-age "jack" king salmon are normally right around that 28" legal size limit weighing 8 to 12 lbs. In general, Taku king salmon are not giants by any measure. During three decades of study on this stock, only a handful of fish have been observed exceeding 60 lbs in weight.