Science Excellence

2016 Sam D. Hamilton Award for Transformational Conservation Science

Lewis Coggins, PhD Fishery Biologist, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

Fishery Biologist, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

Photo of Dr. Lew Coggins and his dog. Credit: USFWSDr. Lew Coggins' emphasis on solid science, diverse collaboration, and objective-driven management has helped to create an unprecedented atmosphere of cooperation in the management of Chinook salmon on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska.

This salmon run is one of the largest in North America and supports the largest subsistence Chinook salmon fishery on the continent. Over the last decade, however, the Chinook salmon run declined to historic population lows and remained at consistently low levels for an unprecedented numbers of years. On the other hand, tensions rose for Native American subsistence users who were experiencing hardship under more stringent fishing restrictions to meet drainage-wide escape goals, first under state management, then federal. In 2014, the Chinook harvest along the Kuskokwim River was only 15% of the long-term average.

When Dr. Coggins arrived at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in mid-June of 2014, he immediately set to work to incorporate the tenets of adaptive management and strategic habitat conservation into how the Refuge did business including helping the Refuge formulate specific objectives for Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon, and designing management alternatives to achieve those objectives.

Dr. Coggins championed structured decision making and provided objective-driven management training for the Refuge staff. He promoted transparent, quantitative approaches to setting in-season objectives for Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon escapement and harvest. He then created models managers could use to promote, evaluate, and, when necessary, revise management actions for achieving those objectives.

For in-season management in 2015, Dr. Coggins created a number of innovative tools. He quantitatively formalized an approach using the ratio of salmon species abundance in the Bethel Test Fishery (BTF) to evaluate run timing and the scheduling of subsistence fishing opportunities. He also crafted a decision-making framework for the in-season manager, incorporating estimates of fishing effort and fishing success into a model to predict the impacts of subsequent fishing openings.

He then successfully advocated for new surveys by the Service and Native partners to provide timely in-season data for informing those very models and the decisions deriving from them. He also produced daily summaries of the state's BTF data predicting the timing and magnitude of the Chinook salmon run to provide added context for management decisions.

Following the 2015 in-season management effort, Dr. Coggins has co-led a number of Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon stakeholder workshops to build management capacity and familiarity with structured decision making.

To inform 2016 in-season Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon subsistence fishery management decisions, Dr. Coggins built upon his earlier work and outlined a structured decision making framework that relied on best available pre-season and in-season information on the run. The 2016 framework also incorporated management constraints and stakeholders/managers' objectives and risk tolerances. He developed a new generation of Chinook salmon harvest prediction models to screen in-season management options; supervised and advised on the development of daily in-season salmon assessment reports; and led weekly discussions evaluating management options with the Service, Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission, and state representatives.  

By encouraging explicit management objectives for both escapement and harvest, the Refuge was able to negotiate and launch a groundbreaking and extremely well received Community Harvest Permit system. This program allowed a modest directed harvest of Chinook salmon while explicitly incorporating permit administration by the tribal leadership in each community.

Dr. Coggins' efforts helped refuge managers conclude the most successful Chinook salmon season since the Service assumed in-season management in 2014. For the first time in nearly a decade, escapement on the Refuge's most important individual tributary met (and exceeded) its goal. While subsistence harvest is still not on par with historic levels, the 2016 season was highlighted by a high degree of harvest satisfaction and extremely high regulatory compliance.

In addition, because Dr. Coggins insisted on clear, transparent, and readily explainable management objectives, the Refuge manager was able to conduct effective and unprecedented in-season tribal consultations with the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission. The commission responded by standing side-by-side with the Service in supporting new restrictions, implementing the community harvest program, and defusing potential protest fisheries and threats towards the Service. So successful were these tribal consultations with the commission that they are now a model for the primary component of the Kuskokwim River cooperative management demonstration project, finalized in May 2016 at the behest of the Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

Learn more about the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.


Back to Science Awards

Last updated: January 18, 2017

Please send comments, suggestions and questions for this Web site to: Megan Cook at

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Home Page | Department of the Interior  |  | About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  | Accessibility  | Privacy  | Notices  | Disclaimer  | FOIA