Neva Lake’s Sockeye Salmon

Image 1: Lione Clare/ Sustainable Southeast. Coho Salmon

Hoonah’s Connection to Neva Lake

Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in Neva Lake remains a crucial resource for Tlingit communities in northern Southeast AK; Excursion inlet, Hoonah, and Gustavus. The need for fisheries management that implements effective monitoring for local communities and agencies to make informed decisions about their local resources has never been higher. To begin to meet that goal in a locally important sockeye system, HIA has collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to monitor Sockeye at Neva Lake. This ongoing collaboration has been fruitful, and the data can assist rural residents who utilize the wealth of salmon at Neva Lake.

In Hoonah, salmon is harvested by 88.5% of households and out of the five salmon species 51.6% is Sockeye Salmon (ADF&G 2017). Over the past decade, commercial and non-resident fishing and loss of natural habitat is changing how Hoonah residents fish in Neva Lake. A review of current and historical cultural use maps demonstrates Hoonah’s culturally significant ties to Neva Lake and Neva Creek through subsistence and economics. Neva’s location and ownership are dependent on several variables, some of which remain unresolved, such as “… issues involving Hoonah’s war/combat veterans and their lack of opportunity to select homestead land of their own prior to the abolishment of the Homestead Act under Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971” (Belton, pers. Comm. January. 2005). Other influential circumstances include a local Cannery, proximity to Haines, and Neva’s relationship with the Tongass National Rainforest, thusly being one of the many unresolved native land claims in Alaska.

88.5% of Hoonah Households Harvest Salmon

Taken by Lione Clare, Sustainable Southeast

Alaskan salmon has been a staple for locals for numerous generations and each year Federal and State permits determine the catch limit per household during a given season. Harvest limits are based on subsistence management for future Sockeye runs. Federal permits are allotted for rural residents in freshwater, while an Alaskan resident can fish in marine and fresh waters with a State subsistence/ personal use permit. In 2019 a restriction was placed on Sockeye harvest for qualified rural residents in the Federal waters of Neva. The fishing restrictions stemmed from Proposal FP19-19 by Calvin Casipit of Gustavus, stating “…over the past few years the subsistence harvest limit for Sockeye has been reduced from 40 to 10 salmon, at the same time sport harvest and use by nonresidents and unguided charter boat renters from urban areas in the lower 48, have continued uncontrolled and unabated.” He further states that “this is a clear violation of Title VIII of ANILCA [the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act]” ( Searac 2018). Casipit’s proposal was further investigated and the regulation was passed.

“…over the past few years the subsistence harvest limit for Sockeye has been reduced from 40 to 10 salmon, at the same time sport harvest and use by nonresidents and unguided charter boat renters from urban areas in the lower 48, have continued uncontrolled and unabated.”

Calvin Casipit

In 2002 the USFS Office of Subsistence Management funded the Fishery Resource Monitoring Program to estimate Sockeye that is “escaping” the fishery and spawning, referred to as escapement, into Neva Lake (ADF&G Wildlife News, 2005). The program collects the age, sex, and length composition of sockeye salmon’s migratory movements through a weir. Weirs are a low dam that stretches across a moving body of water and raises the water level upstream. In collaboration with the Hoonah Indian Association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the USFS took lead on project planning and analysis. HIA was tasked with completing the fieldwork and the ADF&G with assisting in the data processing.

The purpose of this study is to estimate the number of salmon that return to their freshwater spawning habitat during a running season after commercial and recreational fishing. The salmon that are not caught and successfully return is referred to as the “salmon escapement population”. This data can assist rural residents who utilize Neva’s subsistence’s in terms of future seasons’ harvests.  

Figure 1Map of northern southeast Alaska showing Neva Lake and surrounding area.

Neva Lake Sockeye Salmon Stock Assessment – Timing and Trends

Methods of Collecting Field Data 

From 2002-2008, escapement measurements were recorded within the weir-to-spawning area by mark-recapture studies (Van Alen 2004, 2005, 2008b, and 2009). Collection relied on a picket weir set in Neva Lake’s outlet, Neva creek, and was used to validate Sockeye migration. Mark recapture studies are effective but time-consuming and dependent on weather and other complicating factors. To get past these hurdles, video technology was introduced in 2008 and fully implemented in 2009 with a “video weir” placed at the outlet of the lake. The new method of measuring escapement through a double video allows accurate counts while leaving fish to swim freely. In the years 2010-2019 a “double redundant” two-weir, four-camera video system recorded Sockeye movement to an off-site computer for remote monitoring in addition to motion-triggered videos of the fish passing through the outlet.

Video Picket weir at Neva Lake Outlet, 06/19/2019 & Live video of Weir site, seen by field crew in Excursion Inlet.  

Data Trends

Sockeye is returning at a younger age to spawn – 2019’s majority of fish were between the ages of 1.1 (2 years) to 1.3 (4 years). The 1.2 (3 years) age are a large portion of the escapement. The parent year for 1.2 fish returning to Neva Lake in 2019 is a record low (Musselwhite 2020).  

Spawning sockeye are shorter on average – The average length of 1.3 fish sampled in 2019 was 21.22 inches, which compared to the historical average, 22.24 inches, is significantly shorter. The 1.1 fish measured at 13.94 inches and doesn’t differ far from the historical average of 14.29 inches. Only two of the 1.2 age fish were measured, therefore there is no further data (Musselwhite 2020).   

The age comparisons from the 2002-2019 study show age-1 fish (salmon who have spent only 1 year in freshwater) are most abundant (1.2 and 1.3) (Musselwhite 2020).  

The Sockeye count in 2019 is the tenth highest escapement in the 16-year study. Subsistence effort and harvests began a decline in 2013, likely due to harvest restriction and lack of abundance. The run time of the Sockeye was later than past studies, this is likely due to the dry summer. The 2019 data collection from June 20 to September 30, 2019, daily counts resulted in 4,350 fish (4,298 adults and 52 jacks). The estimated amount of Sockeye passing through the weir after September 30th was based on historical counts and resulted in an additional 39 Sockeye. Totaling an estimated escapement of 4,389 Sockeye for the season and a count of 1,078 Coho Salmon, 103 Pink Salmon, 1,211 Dolly Varden, and 33 Cutthroat trout.   

The escapement measurement tells Hoonah residents that Sockeye in Neva Lake is still struggling to reach high numbers of abundance, but the ecosystem is slowly improving. Creating requirements that place restrictions on permits remain an important step for the Sockeye of Neva Lake and the Tlingit communities reliant on Neva resources. This includes limiting permits to Alaskan residents and rural communities and maintaining a healthy habitat for the local Sockeye population.   


Information and Figures 1-3

Musslewhite, Jacob G. 2020 Neva Lake Sockeye Salmon Assessment, 2019. Annual Report for Study 18-607. USDA Forest Service Ranger District.  

Sill, Lauren A. Koster, David. The Harvest and Use of Wild Resources in Haines Hoonah, Angoon, Whale Pass, and Hyaburg, Alaska 2012. Tech Paper No. 399. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council Meeting Materials. 2018. Sitka Tribal Community House. Sitka. 




Written by:

Jillian Schuyler

AmeriCorps VISTA

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