Frank Rue is an Alaskan Fisheries manager.



In terms of management, why is everyone saying that the Alaskan salmon fishery is a sustainable and robust fishery?

There's about four reasons. First of all we've got good habitat and we've worked hard to protect our freshwater habitat. The second part is we've got a very good in-season management system with biologists who are on the grounds, have the authority to open and close fisheries real-time as we see the size of the run. And part of that is we also have a very good program to measure the run strength.

So are we getting fish up the rivers to spawn? We have ways of measuring that and we run our fisheries based on how we're doing on spawning escapements and how we're doing on catches and the managers have the authority to open or close it based on what they see.

The third part is that we've got a very good public buy-in to the process -- the fishermen believe in it, and the fishermen are invested in it because they have ownership in the future of the fishery because of the system we've got up her -- of limited entry -- where the fishermen are small business people, they own their permits, they have to fish their permits, there's no absentee fishermen.

The people who fish are on the boats and they know that the future of their livelihood is dependent on us doing a good job and they've seen it work.

And then I think another very important part of it is you've got very strong laws underpinning this management system, starting with our Constitution -- it says we'll manage based on a sustained yield principle. So if we're starting right at the Constitution and all through our system of laws that emphasizes sustained yield, emphasizes wild stock over hatcheries and emphasizes habitat protection. So we have the legal underpinnings to make it work.

What is your in-season management?

Basically managers all around the state were given the authority to make decisions as the run comes in. And then we give them the tools to measure the runs. We'll have a weir, which is basically a fence that runs across the river that lets us count fish as they come up the river. We know how many salmon we need to spawn or to rebuild or sustain the run.

So you have people sitting at the weir counting the fish, the manager gets those reports daily. As he opens up the fishery he sees what the catch is, he has the information from the weirs. He can turn the fishery on or off based on twelve hours' notice. And the fishermen are basically waiting for that manager to open or close the fishery.

In short, we watch the run on a daily basis, actually in some places even hourly. We're getting weir counts from our weirs at least once a day, sometimes more often. We're watching the fishery performance daily. And so we make decisions on some fisheries daily.

How important is habitat to fisheries in Alaska?

Protecting freshwater habitat is absolutely fundamental to the health of our fishery. As you've seen in the lower 48, that's one of their big problems -- they've lost that habitat. In Alaska we have not lost that habitat. We have a few problems here and there but basically we have intact, natural systems. They are the way they were 10,000 years ago.

What can you say about timber management?

Alaska's pretty lucky about timber management. We have very strong rules on federal lands and we have a lot of federal lands up here that protect streams, protect stream buffers; we have very strong rules on state lands, we have a lot of state lands. So Alaska's got ahead of the curve in terms of timber management. We put rules in place before it got too bad on both state/federal and private lands.

How about dams?

Alaska, again, we don't have many dams. There have been proposals for dams and people have fought them. For instance there was plan to dam the Yukon River; there was a plan to dam the Susitna River. None of those passed because Alaskans value their wild rivers and their wild salmon too much; it was too controversial to dam up those major river systems.

What kind of support does the management regime have from the fishermen themselves?

The fishermen are very supportive of the management system. They've seen it work. Many of them were around early on in statehood, either that or their dads were. And when the runs were in terrible shape the state took over. The state's management system has rebuilt the runs throughout the state. The fishermen have seen that happen. A lot of them have been put on the beach to let the runs rebuild and they've seen that work.

They're also very involved in the system. We're talking to fishermen daily during the fishery. We use information from fishermen to help us decide when to do openings, it helps us to know how big the run is, so they're very involved in the system and they've seen it work.

Another thing is as limited-entry permit owners, they have an interest in the long-term management. Their future depends on us having a sustainable resource and they know it, and so they are bought into it.

Could you speak to the critics who say that since there have been huge salmon runs for thousands of years in Alaska, this system never really had to turn something around?

Well, it has not always been great up here. In fact, I think it was 1972 or 74, the entire fishery sat on the beach. Things were so bad when we started statehood that President Eisenhower declared it a disaster. So it has not always been great up here and our management system has been able to turn that around, along with good ocean survival. But you got to have good management, good habitat, and some good ocean survival. But it has not always been rosy.

Has the management regime in Alaska paid off in economic terms?

Oh yes it has. About 12,000 Alaskans are actually permit holders -- salmon fishermen or other limited-entry permit owners. So it's a tremendous part of our economy. Even in Anchorage, one of our biggest cities, there are a lot of fishermen in Anchorage. But if you look at the small communities in Alaska -- the rural Alaska -- fishing is one of the bedrock pieces of their economy; it's fundamental.

Has the plentiful presence of salmon, compared to the lower 48, been beneficial to other types of wildlife?

The whole system in Alaska basically runs on salmon, if you will. I mean they bring nutrients back from the ocean up these streams. Everything from trout, rainbow trout, Dolly Parton trout, bears, otters, eagles, everything; the whole system basically runs on salmon. Even the vegetation along the streams are dependent on salmon bringing back that fertilizer, so the whole system in many places runs on salmon.

How come we're not seeing salmon farms in coastal waters of Alaska?

Alaskans thought long and hard about salmon farms and basically decided they didn't want them. And they didn't want them because we've got an incredible wild resource, so why would you risk your wild resource with farms. Two, you have a very vibrant industry with many Alaskans depending on salmon industry that is based on wild fish, so why risk disease, competition, genetic problems?

Also we've got this incredible coastline; why would we want to fill it up with farms? And there's a lot of competition for using bays, fjords that you might want to put a farm in for many other uses. So all those reasons Alaskans decided, we don't want them.

How would you compare the number of fish taken by the fishery here to the number that never make to their spawning grounds in the lower 48?

There's really only one stock of endangered Chinook salmon that we catch up here and that's the Snake River Falls Chinook. And I think it's 1/10 of 1% of the fish that are in that stock, so it would be the equivalent of one or two spawners. If you shut down our entire fisheries to catch those Chinook, you might get one or two more fish, a few more fish. I think 90 or 95% of the fish are killed by dams. So we have an infinitesimal impact on those fish.

How important has limited-entry, as compared to open-access, been to the restoration of the fishery?

I think limited entry has been one of the fundamental pieces because it basically bought the fishermen into the long-term view. They don't have a short-term view because the value of that permit is based on the resource coming back, so they have a long-term view. It also allowed us to control the size of the fleet so we have a manageable-sized fleet for all our fisheries.

Can you speak about the role of the Citizens' Board?

One of the other important parts of Alaska's management system is we have a Citizens' Board of Fisheries that allocates the fish between the different users -- the gill-netters, the seiners, the sports fishermen. The Department doesn't do that. In other states the Department sets those regulations and it's really important to have the Department separate from allocation decisions so we can manage.

The fishermen don't see us as someone who's going to take their fish away and give it to somebody else. They see us as someone who's just interested in One: getting the fish back to spawn, and Two: making that available surplus available to them. So it's really nice to separate the management from the allocation and that's really helped us in Alaska.

Around statehood, years ago, the canneries used to own all the boats; basically they owned the industry. When Alaska went to limited entry we went to the idea of the fishermen owned the permit, owned the boat, they're small businesses. We don't deal with amorphous corporations; we deal with real people.

How important is the sustainable approach to the fisheries to the recreational fisheries?

It's incredibly important. We've got a very important sports fishery here in Alaska, all through the state. People who live here love to sport-fish. There's a lot of people who use that to get food for the winter. We also have a very large industry based on sport fishing -- I think it's somewhere around 600 million dollars a year generated from sports fishing in Alaska.

And people need to know there are fish coming back or they're not going to come up and sport fish. So both for residents and the people who like to visit the state, that's tremendously important that we have a sustainable fishery. It's got huge economic benefits and huge sort of personal benefits for people who enjoy getting out and catching fish, feeding their families.