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Alaska Fisheries Report March 10, 2022

On this week’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines: Russia and USA cooperate on salmon research. Story by Eric Stone. And Sabine Poux reports on the Fisher Poets virtual get together.

United States and Russia agree about salmon research

Eric Stone/KRBD

Tensions continue to simmer between Moscow (MOSS-koh) and Washington in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In many respects, the divide between East and West is deepening: Oil companies are canceling partnerships with Russian firms. Legislators are calling for the state’s sovereign wealth fund to dump Russian investments. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the U.S. would close its airspace to Russian aircraft, and its pumps to Russian oil.

But the United States and Russia are continuing to work together on at least one issue… *salmon*.

As KRBD’s Eric Stone reports, people on both sides of the Bering Strait have a stake in fisheries research.

There’s a map scattered with orange, green, blue and red dots spanning most of the North Pacific [WEB: above 46 degrees latitude].

On the map are three flags of Arctic nations: the U.S., Canada and the Russian Federation.

SAUNDERS          This interaction between the countries in this is really something that has never happened to this scale before.

That’s Mark Saunders, the executive director of the five-country North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. He’s talking about the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition.

Vessels from both sides of the Pacific are braving gale-force winds and 13-foot seas as they crisscross the ocean from the edge of the Aleutian Chain to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

All in the name of research on challenges to wild salmon runs that are important to people on all sides of the Pacific Rim.

WILLIAMS  This past summer,, the Yukon River did not fish for food. Zero.

That’s Mike Williams Sr. He’s the chair of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. That’s an organization that manages and researches fisheries using a combination of traditional knowledge and Western scientific methods.

Last year, the chum salmon run on the Yukon River collapsed. Never before had so few fish swum up the nearly 2,000-mile river. Regulators closed all fishing on the Yukon to preserve what little of the run remained.

Williams says in recent years, he’s watched the run on the Kuskokwim dwindle, too. In the past, he says fishing was relatively unrestricted: Residents would return to their fish camps shortly after the ice on the river broke up in the spring.

But in recent years, he says residents have had to wait until June — long after breakup — to start stockpiling the essential staple.

WILLIAMS  We depend on the salmon to sustain us through the winter. And, and we’re very concerned about the returns of our salmon in all of the rivers in western Alaska.

It’s not clear what was behind the collapse. The Inter-Tribal Commission — and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for that matter — spend most of their effort studying what happens in freshwater. But that’s just a small part of a salmon’s life.

WILLIAMS The salmon spawn in our headwaters, they go down to the ocean, and something happens in the ocean.

And it’s not just Western Alaska — in Southeast, Chinook runs from Haines to Ketchikan are listed as stocks of concern. Salmon fishing on the Unuk River has been banned outright for years.

Some, including Williams, say too many salmon in the Bering Sea and the North Pacific are being pulled out of the ocean as bycatch from trawlers that scrape the seabed for sole and flounder. Others say fish from hatcheries all over the Pacific Rim are outcompeting native fish. Some say climate change is affecting the food web — or a combination of all these factors.

But one thing is clear: something is happening to chum and Chinook salmon in the open ocean.

SAUNDERS          We know that a lot of the poor survival for chum and other salmon is related to the marine environment.

That’s Mark Saunders of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission again, speaking from his home office on Vancouver Island. He says there’s quite a bit known about how the ocean is changing,

But you need to know where the fish are and have actually had your hands on them and understood how they’re interacting with the environment, what they’re eating, what the conditions are. And what predators are out there as well. And that is, I think a lot of that’s a big that is a large black box, in particular this winter period, we know very little about

He says the goal of the survey — the largest ever conducted — is to shine some light in that black box.

Scientists are hoping to map out the distribution of salmon across the North Pacific using new DNA techniques developed over the past decade or so to understand where salmon interact with predators, prey and each other — not to mention a generally warmer, more acidic ocean.

And the big question is, how is the changing North Pacific Ocean affecting our salmon and, and improving our ability to understand how that change is going to impact people and fish and fisheries into the future?

That brings us back to the orange, green, and blue-dotted map.

Earlier this winter, ships from the U.S., Canada and Russia set sail for the North Pacific. Each is assigned its own area to sample: The U.S. and Canada are tackling areas in the Gulf of Alaska and west of British Columbia, and a vessel from Russia is surveying an immense swath of ocean spanning areas south of the Alaska Peninsula all the way out the Aleutian Chain southwest of Adak.

The Russian vessel’s survey work started late last month — it actually tied up in Dutch Harbor a day after Russian troops started their assault on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Unalaska’s port director told KRBD the visit was tightly scrutinized by U.S. border agents.

Alaska’s chief salmon scientist, Bill Templin, says he watched the invasion unfold.

My first concerns were for the people of Ukraine. … But then when I walked into my office that I sat down, was thinking, Oh, okay, so what does this mean?

He says it’s not the first time international tensions have come up in his work with the five-country commission. He recalls Russian scientists including islands disputed with Japan on maps of salmon stocks — all in good fun, as he recalls.

The first two years, they got it past me, and the Japanese had to come over and correct me very politely.

But this is more tension than usual, to put it lightly.

[WEB: Mark Saunders,] the head of the anadromous fish commission, says an American scientist was scheduled to board the Russian vessel to allow it to survey within the 230-mile U.S exclusive economic zone. That didn’t happen. And that means the Russian boat can’t work too close to the Aleutian Chain. And Templin says that means salmon activity within that zone will remain a blank spot for now.

It doesn’t ruin the results. It’s not a failure. But it is going to limit what we get. And it’s taken years to get this winter coordinated, so it’s a little disappointing.

But Templin says scientists from Japan, Canada, South Korea, Russia and the United States have always put their work first, and their political leaders’ policies second. And he says that’ll continue.

the salmon all go to the same place. So they’re all grazing in the same field, so to speak. And so for all of us to work together to understand what’s happening out there, and the way it affects our nation. is I think it’s a pretty huge deal. And I’d hate to see it go away.

So far, geopolitical tensions haven’t overshadowed the need for cooperation — at least, not when it comes to preserving wild salmon.

Eric Stone News Director, KRBD



Fisher Poets

Sabine Poux, KDLL

Commercial fishermen from Alaska to Maine have been gathering in Astoria, Ore. since the late 1990s to share spoken-word poems and shanties about life at sea.

Like most performances, that gathering has been on pause during the pandemic.

But this year and last, Fisher Poets have met up over Zoom to continue the tradition remotely.

Two fishermen from the central Kenai Peninsula were at this year’s gathering, held the last weekend in February. They had some technical difficulties.

They almost didn’t make it. But Steve Schoonmacher and Clark Whitney joined the virtual gathering just in the nick of time last Friday to deliver a poem and a song to a remote audience.

Schoonmacher, who lives in Kasilof, has been going to Fisher Poets in Astoria for over a decade.

He says he’s appreciative of the chance to meet up virtually, even if it’s not quite the same as being altogether. He says there’s a different kind of feedback when he’s in the same room as his audience.

“I can look at people, I can feel the energy in the room. Then it becomes a performance.”

He’s kept up the in-person performances locally, including at open mics in Homer.

But he says he’s looking forward to getting back to the in-person Astoria gatherings next year.

“It becomes like a family down there, when you run into everybody. So that’s a huge part of it. We all get together again, we all bring back something and we do it again. Then the fans you meet, you get a relationship with them. So it’s a reunion. And 15 years go by just like that.”

Amanda Gladics agrees. She works with the Coastal Fisheries Extension at Oregon State University in Astoria and is on the Fisher Poets planning committee.

“There’s a buzz. I mean, you start to see people show up in town on Thursday night. And it starts with kind of a gathering of performers on Thursday night for a welcome gathering. And that’s a really cool experience, to see people who have been coming together for many years — or maybe this is their first Fisher Poets and they’re just meeting people for the first time. But there’s just this real sense of community and camaraderie and respect, for both the work that those people do in their fishing seasons and the respect for the artistry and the writing that they work on.

She’s been helping pull the gathering together since 2016. And she says year after year, it’s been an important time for the community that hosts.

“There’s a really strong support for fisher poetry and the Fisher Poets gathering here in Astoria, as well. So I love that there’s this really wide geographic connection and also this very local component to the gathering.

This year, she says the planning committee worked hard to maintain the sense of community at the gathering with rehearsals and virtual communal meeting spaces.

Clark Whitney, of Soldotna, says it’s gratifying knowing how many fishermen are tuned in from around the country.

“I just want to stay a part of it. So every chance I get I want to try to perform with them.”

He’s been writing poems since his early days on the water. And he says his poems would often turn into songs.

During the pandemic, he picked up the guitar. He incorporated the guitar into his performance at Fisher Poets this year, of a song he wrote called “I Want to be a Fisherman.” It’s from when he started fishing with his dad in Bristol Bay.

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