ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The 2020 salmon season in Alaska presented unique challenges related to COVID-19 for fishermen across the state, but in the Chignik area, the season was all too familiar with few fish and concern for the future of the stock.

“I think that the best way to state this is that we here in Chignik had such a declined season this year even to the degree that subsistence use was frightening for us,” Ben Allen, commercial fisherman and city councilman in Chignik, said. “We actually felt guilty about taking fish for usage for food because we knew that every fish that we took out of our system was negatively impacting the sustainability of an Alaska resource.”

Chignik Bay has two sockeye salmon runs. In 2018, fishermen in Chignik area did not have an opener for salmon. That season was later declared a disaster and the federal government approved more than $10 million in relief funds. In 2019, the first sockeye run was shockingly small, and the second run came in with just enough to allow some fishing.

“The escapement is so low this year, our first run and our second run total escapement did not meet the low-end mark that the first run is supposed to have,” Allen said.

The consequences are not just severe for commercial fishermen, but the communities rely on a healthy salmon run to support subsistence life. This year Alaskans Own, a community-supported fishery in Southeast Alaska, and Northline Seafoods donated several thousand pounds of sockeye caught in Bristol Bay to Chignik communities. Allen says farming groups have also donated milk and agricultural products. Without the support of other Alaskans, Allen says many in the community wouldn’t have food for the winter.

“That plane hit the ground and most of the people that live in town showed up and immediately started helping and immediately got it to freezer spaces and to all the people that were in need,” Allen said. “It’s been amazing to watch the people that cared so much in even other communities to be able to pass on that relief, and it was very relieving to us and very appreciated.”

Although he is grateful for the support, Allen said what the community needs is for fisheries managers to take a stronger position on conserving the fish stocks. While the decline is acutely impacting Chignik, Allen believes the causes behind the decline warrant more urgency from the Department of Fish and Game because they will lead to diminished returns in other areas.

“A lot of the people in the state see this as ’Poor Chignik is struggling.’ And I really want people to understand that this is not a ’Poor Chignik is struggling.’ This is the definition of what’s happening in the Gulf of Alaska right now. And we are in deep trouble with what’s happening, and we’re just the thing that is showing what’s going to occur through the rest of the state. Diminishment in our run is going to affect the interception fishery that relies on our fish as well. Eventually, it’s going to break down to the point where they’re going to suffer,” Allen said. “Everything is now migrating out, and so Kodiak is going to start feeling more and more of our fishermen move to their area. We’re going to start eating up all the latent, dormant permits there because we need income, and we’re just going to move over there. So not only are we suffering, but now Kodiak’s going to suffer because we’re going to be fishing in their right alongside of them taking part of their catch that they have diminished runs on. The same thing with Cook Inlet.”

Allen says that for starters, he’d like ADF&G to take a closer look a considering identifying Chignik sockeye as a fish stock of concern and have the Board of Fisheries and the department be more aggressive in rebuilding the run.

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