Andy McGregor is a Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.


Everyone talks about the successful management of Alaska Salmon, that it's a sustainable fishery. Has it always been so?

We have had a long history of healthy salmon stocks here. I think we still have intact habitat. We've got very little effect of urbanization. Alaska is lightly populated. We have very few damns on our anadramous salmon streams. So we have good habitat. If we put salmon on the spotting grounds, it's highly likely that they're going to be productive. We also have some very intensive in-season fishery management programs for collecting data to properly manage fisheries. I think that's had a big effect on our stocks. And I also think that we're blessed by Mother Nature. And we've had many years now of favorable marine survival for our salmon, so things are going well.

I heard that there was actually a time when these runs were endangered, that your successful management has helped to restore fish. What have you done here to actually help bring stocks back? Why are the salmon runs so robust here in Alaska?

I think that they are robust in a number of ways. Our environment is still very healthy. We have little effects of urbanization here. We also have taken care of our environment to the best extent that we can. Very few, if any, of our anadramous salmon streams have been dammed. Also, we have some very intensive in season management programs, which we use to manage our stocks on an abundance-based approach. And finally, we have been blessed by Mother Nature with some favorable marine survival conditions over the last twenty years or so.

What is this in-season approach to management?

There are a wide variety of in-season management programs in Alaska. But they all have a couple of common elements and that's in-season monitoring of the escapements, and in-season monitoring of harvest. Unless you have enough fish on the spawning grounds, obviously your runs are going to be depleted. And so our monitoring of escapements is done in a wide variety of methods, statewide.

Here today, we've looked at our fish wheel on the Taku River, where the fish are tagged and recaptured upstream, and the market capture estimate of escapement is generated. Elsewhere in the state, there are sonar programs that are conducted generally on large muddy or glacial systems. Examples of that would be on the Yukon and Copper River. Also there are counting wheels where fish are counted. These are typically on smaller creeks that are clear water systems.

There are counting towers, primarily in the Bristol Bay region, where biotechnicians actually stand in towers and count fish going up clear water rivers; and also particularly in marine near-shore areas here -- particularly in southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound and Kodiak areas, among others -- where there are large numbers of small pink salmon and chunk salmon streams.

Aerial surveys are a major way of monitoring statements. So first thing is, you have to have enough fish into the creeks. Then we also monitor the harvests, and so we're out interviewing fishermen, we're tabulating what the catches are, what the catch rates are, we are comparing that to historical data, give us an idea of run strength through our fisheries.

But we don't just look at numbers when we are out on the fishery, looking for catch information. We sample the catch for biological information. Here in southeast Alaska, we look at the sex ratios -- male to female ratios -- in pink salmon. And it turns out in a given stock, male pink salmon tend to come back earlier than the female pink salmon. So we can tell. We can get engaged of where we are in a run by the ratio of male pink salmon to female pink salmon in the fishery.

We also do quite a wide variety of stock identification programs statewide. And these would be, like in our catch, what stocks are contributing to what extent. There are a wide variety of methods that are used. There are genetic characteristics that are looked at -- growth characteristics that are expressed on the scales of the fish. There are differences in the instances of parasites on fish. And there's a lot of tagging of juvenile salmon and adult salmon that's done as well. So we get a lot of information from our catch sampling, we put it all together, and I think that our in-season management speaks for itself and the success that we've had since statehood.

A lot of people might not picture that there would be camps like this, and that they would be integral to the success story of the management.

A lot of camps are very remote. They are filled with technicians and biologists who don't get a lot of credit for what they do. They're really the backbone of the whole operation. And when you're out, you're not around very many people; you're getting really back to the roots, in many cases. There are people that will be out in the bush for four or five months at a time, doing this work. And having spent a little of time out here myself in camps, you learn something about yourself while you're out in that kind of environment.

How does the fish wheel help you to catch the salmon?

It's kind of an interesting program. It's fairly unique in that the Alaska State's Department of Game is jointly operating this program along with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The idea is that we operate these fish wheels and catch fish, and then the biological data taken from the fish-the sex, the length-is recorded. A scale is taken from the fish. The scales have ring patterns, not unlike that you would see exposed in a cross-section of a log. And those are used for racial studies-stocks separation studies.

And the fish are tagged and released. And they're recovered upstream, a short distance, in a Canadian fishery on the river, and the ratio of marked to unmarked fish in that fishery allows us to generate estimates of how many fish are in the river. And then we compare that to historical information and we're able to assess whether we're on track to meet our escapement targets or not.

If we are on track, and it appears there is additional surplus available, we can adjust our fishery downriver, or the Canadians can adjust their fishery in-river to increase our harvest. If we're not on track, then we throttle back our fisheries. It's a very interactive program. We're getting information from it on a daily basis through the season and that allows us to very carefully manage our commercial fisheries.

What is so vital about escapement for salmon?

The escapement of salmon is the most basic thing. You have to have eggs put in the gravel in order to get fish back. And in the state of Alaska, there has been a lot of time and effort setting escapement goals and monitoring goals for escapements to assure that we put enough eggs in the gravel. Mother Nature isn't always going to be as nice as she has been in recent years and there are some times that that's not going to produce that many fish. But if you don't put enough fish in the spawning grounds, sooner or later, you're going to have a disaster on your hands.

Can you talk about how you communicate changes in quotas, or changes in season to fishermen?

Our fisheries are announced either over the World Wide Web or by what we call a news release -- it's electronically sent out. We also have hotlines at our office that we advertise the openings, broadcast the openings, what they're going to be. But basically, we take the biological data that we have and we decide what the areas that are be open to fishing and how long they are going to be open to fishing. And then we advertise that, we distribute that to the various fishing fleets by a variety of methods.

When an area is closed, are you also setting quotas?

Again, it's abundance-based management. And in abundance-based management, there are no actual quotas. Your catch is relative to run strength. So we're monitoring that through the season, but there are no real quotas. There are across the state a number of instances where we have harvest sharing plans -- either management plans for sharing among user groups. Also this river is a good example, where we share the harvest with the Canadians. There are harvest-sharing percentages that are established by the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

So I guess in a way there are harvest quotas, but in general it's abundance-based management and there aren't any set targets that we're looking at, except trying to meet our escapement goals.

By in large, do most people who are fishing salmon go along with this management regime pretty earnestly? How do they feel about it?

I do think that our management policies and actions are generally supported by our fishermen in Alaska. I think our local biologists are empowered with the ability to make decisions on the spot for fish entitlement area. So you've got your management decisions being made on a local level by people that are most familiar with the resource.

Additionally, I think one of the major reasons why it's supported by fishermen is that management biologists do not make allocative decisions. Those types of decisions, as far as splitting up the harvest pie, are made by our board officials. And that takes a fair amount of the political aspect of our jobs as managers, biologists, out of the equation. And we're happy it is that way.

Has the abundance-based management scheme paid off for Alaska in economic terms?

I would say that abundance-based management has paid off tremendously -- economically and biologically -- for the state of Alaska. We've had harvests of salmon between an average of 180 to 280 million fish over the last 10 years. So we've got very healthy stocks in general. We've got very healthy commercial harvests, and yes, it's paid off.

How important is salmon, culturally, to coastal communities in Juneau, for example?

You cannot overestimate the importance of salmon to a large majority of the Alaskan populace, the natives who have utilized this resource for hundreds of years. Also, here in southeast Alaska, we have a lot of communities that completely revolve around salmon harvesting. And without the ability to keep our stocks healthy and keep our fisheries going, most towns would literally dry up. So it's very valuable to the citizens of Alaska, both native and white.

Why are there no salmon farms in the coastal waters of Alaska?

We have enough wild salmon in Alaska that I think salmon farms would be superfluous to our needs. And I think there are a number of biological considerations with salmon farms that people in Alaska and politicians in Alaska have looked at salmon farming and felt that, given our healthy stocks of salmon, that wasn't something that the state was interested in.