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Fish and Game commissioner says preservation a priority amid struggling fisheries

Attendees exploring booths on the floor of ComFish. March 16, 2023. Brian Venua/KMXT
Attendees exploring booths on the floor of ComFish. March 16, 2023. Brian Venua/KMXT

Doug Vincent-Lang is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He opened his presentation sharing concerns about Chinook and chum salmon stocks across the state.

Salmon populations across most areas of the state have been struggling, with particular concerns for Chinook. Vincent-Lang says preservation is the priority amidst struggling fisheries around the state.

“King Salmon are pretty much depressed across our state and most people know that,” he said. 

Some examples he provided were subsistence fishery closures in Cook Inlet last year and the Nushagak River’s Chinook struggles near Bristol Bay. The Nushagak Chinook run failed to meet its lower boundary escapement goal the last few years. Vincent-Lang mentioned intercept fisheries such as Area M, where harvested fish have genetic roots from multiple areas, are becoming more of a concern.

“We don’t always have a complete consensus at the end of the decision, but at least people are coming together at a meeting and trying to find the least grudging consensus to move forward on issues,” he said. 

Another big topic for Vincent-Lang was fishery disaster declarations. Nearly two dozen fishery disaster designations were approved by the U.S. Commerce Department in January of 2022 and then in December.

Vincent-Lang says it’s a slow process to get that funding, but he hopes to push Congress to speed up their end of the process and get relief as soon as possible.

“These are long, drawn-out processes that we’re trying to work with Congress to somewhat speed up so that you’re not in this endless loop of waiting for money,” he said. 

The state is also facing several lawsuits right now, including the contention between southeast troll fishers and a Washington-based environmental group.

“They’ve determined that they can shut down southeast Alaska fisheries, even though there’s a pretty de minimis impact in Puget Sound as well as killer whales that are feeding on king salmon,” he said. 

Vincent-Lang says they will defend the state’s right to fish the panhandle’s mixed stock fisheries. He says other lawsuits they’re keeping an eye on include one with Metlakatla and one in Cook Inlet. The lawsuit with Metlakatla over their claim to off-reservation fishing rights has gone to the ninth circuit of appeals.

Vincent-Lang says after a tough few years for some of the state’s fisheries that have experienced closures, like Bering Sea crabbers, Fish and Game is ready for when there is a surplus significant enough for harvest again. The department is working with fisherfolk on research to keep them engaged during closures.

“The important objective of that is to have a fishery at the end of it and if all the fishermen are out of business or are gone, that’s not a good outcome,” he said. 

He says the department is starting to see hints of growth for Bering Sea Crab, but the long term patterns for Chinook statewide are still a major concern. They’re starting to do more research on the effects of hatcheries on wild stocks in the ocean.

Vincent-Lang also covered other topics during his presentation including bycatch in the Bering Sea, budget increases, and border enforcement.