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This paper was written as part of the 2000 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Salmon Management in the Unalakleet Sub-District of the Norton Sound

Written in part by each of the following:
Tony Dickens
Ryder Erickson
Michael Martin
Eugene Sarren
Jeremy Sarren

Frank A. Degnan High School
P.O. Box 130
Unalakleet, Alaska 99783

Salmon fishing in the Norton Sound (Figure 1) has been the driving force in the lives of many of the people in the Bering Straits Region. In 1961, local commercial salmon fishing first began in the Unalakleet and Shaktoolik sub-districts with primary harvest interests in chinook and coho salmon. Though the present economy of salmon is negligible in our community, we believe that this will rebound in the near future. Our presentation will touch down on the past, present, and future of the salmon economy in Unalakleet. We will explain why we think the salmon population will rebound and has declined in the past. We will also explain the socio-economic impact on our town and how it can recover.

In the past, the numbers of the fish were comparable to 1998. In 1981, the chinook salmon commercial catch and escapement data for the sub-district of Unalakleet in the Norton Sound was peaking at the same high numbers it was two years ago (Figure 2). The estimated commercial catch in 1981 was 6,157. In 1988, the numbers declined to 2,218 chinooks. In 1998, the commercial catch came roughly to 6,413. These numbers compare and represent all types of salmon except the chum (Lean, pers. comm.).

The chum salmon have been decreasing for over 15 years (Figure 7). They reached their peak in 1983 at 109,220, and had fallen to 52,547, less than half the 1983 population by 1992. From 1993 to 1998 this number plummeted to 6,210. The chum salmon are the only salmon that are in decline. All other types of salmon are remaining at a constant population moving back and forth in number, but not drastically (Lean, pers. comm.).

When local fisherman Gary Eckenweiler was asked if the future of salmon in the Norton Sound was doomed, he said he didn't think so. Eckenweiler states, "In fact, the salmon harvesting has been very steady for the past decade or so. Since commercial fishing began, there has been some fluctuation. Chum used to be the majority of the market back in the seventies. That's where the big cash incomes came from, but since then, chum salmon have dropped way below regular levels. The loss of chums is not affecting the economy greatly because cohos, chinooks, and sockeye are the main sources of money for commercial fisherman." Basically, Eckenweiler says the decline of chum has not affected the socio-economics of this area.

Charlie Lean is the head of the Department of Fish and Game in Nome. He thinks that this is happening because of marine survival factors. Chums are being reared and put back into the wild, but they are not returning to the rivers. He believes this is the main cause of the loss of chums. The population of chums in the Pacific has probably tripled in the past 20 years and this has had a big impact on the Bering Sea chum due to food and space. Mr. Lean also believes all other species of salmon have had problems with population, but not in great danger.

Jerry Ivanoff, the Education, Employment, and Training Coordinator of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, says that the decline of chums is not caused by the fishing in our rivers, but is caused by the big trawlers that sit at the five hundred mile markers out in the Bering Sea. There are no man-made disasters in our area and there have never been any. The only impact that could possibly be made on salmon is over-fishing or natural selection. These factors are the two things that both Jerry Ivanoff and Charlie Lean have concluded are impacting the salmon.

In present day Unalakleet, as previously stated, the fish numbers are remaining steady with the exception of the chum salmon. The salmon fishing economy in Unalakleet is not what it used to be. In the past, the price per pound for fish was incredibly high and the populations of fish were high as well. The price per pound of chinooks was $4.80 in 1966 and declined to $.74 in 1998 (Figure 3). Commercial fishing has been declining steadily ever since the prices for fish have dropped. In recent years, preparation for the fishing season has increased in cost. Many fishermen feel that it is not worth the time to fish when the money received will only pay off the expenses of preparing for the fishing season. If the cost of chinook remains low, the fishing economy in Unalakleet will become more dependent on other species of salmon. Only an increase in the price of salmon would boost the interest of fishing in our community.

As we said before, we do not believe that the future of salmon harvesting is doomed. We have interviewed several local fishermen as well as Charlie Lean. They all stated there is no real threat to the fishing harvest. The current fluctuation of individual salmon species does not indicate any long-term problem in local commercial fishing.

We introduced the idea of a fish hatchery to Gary, Charlie, and Jerry and got back similar answers. They believed that not only was a fish hatchery unnecessary, it was impractical. Though the hatchery would be creating many jobs, it would take a lot of money to build and to manage.

Gary Eckenweiler, who has been fishing here for many years, does not think that Unalakleet can manage a fish hatchery because we don't have the resources or the income to do it. A hatchery takes a lot of money to run, a summer counting survey and program, and a lot of expertise. One of his reasons includes the fact that we don't have a local biologist here that has the education or background needed. He also thinks we could run into a problem when we try to self-manage in an area like this.

Lean backs up Eckenweiler by stating, "Since hatchery fish can stand a higher harvest rate, due to their increased survival, it becomes impossible to use all the hatchery fish without depleting the wild run. Ideally, a hatchery would be situated at Egavik or the Golsovia rivers (the Egavik river is 20 miles north of Unalakleet and the Golsovia rivers are the same distance to the south) (Figure 1). The facility has to be on the electrical/telephone grid so monitors can be installed to notify staff if there is a problem. Is anyone willing to spend their time that far away from Unalakleet?" Currently there are no roads to either of these locations. Transportation would have to be by boat, snowmobile, or air. This would cost way too much to fund and isn't worth the time or money.

Eckenweiler goes on to say that we could run into conflicts where different user groups, like the subsistence fishermen, point fingers at the commercial fishermen and vice versa. A hatchery could have the potential of creating conflict and mistrust among Unalakleet's citizens. His personal opinion is that Fish and Game here in Unalakleet does a pretty good job and doesn't make very many mistakes.

Recently, Fish and Game enforced the bag limit on sports fisherman on the Unalakleet River. They have set specific limits on each type of salmon and are giving fisherman without licenses and the right equipment heavy fines. This is very good for the population of fish in the river and it gives them a fighting chance to make it back to their spawning grounds to breed and carry on their species. This will ensure the future of salmon in our region and seems to be the safest and best way to deal with the economy of fish in Unalakleet.

The coastal villages and towns of the Norton Sound will continue to rely on salmon fishing as a source of income. It seems there is no real problem facing the Unalakleet sub-district of the Norton Sound. We do not believe a hatchery would be a good idea. A hatchery would not help our situation in the ecosystem and has the potential to be a much greater threat to the wild salmon. Our strongest belief is that the Unalakleet sub-district will remain unaffected. Despite the other problems facing the Norton Sound salmon population, the Unalakleet sub-district has had no problems with their numbers. The future shows a steady population and no socio-economic problems.


Eckenweiler, Gary. Local Commercial Fisherman and Educator. Personal Interview. 2 December 1999.

Ivanoff, Jerry. Education, Employment, and Training Coordinator for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. Personal Interview. 5 December 1999.

Lean, Charlie. AYK Region Western Arctic Area Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial in Nome, AK. Personal Interview. 8 December 1999.


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