Photo by Whitehorse Star
A “very poor” return of Yukon River chinook salmon this year is being predicted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
In light of the forecast, Alaska has taken the rare step of closing its subsistence food fishery for chinook.
The state has brought in restrictions in previous years, and has shortened openings for subsistence fishing, but rarely has it closed the fishery altogether.
It’s also instructed the subsistence fishery to release alive any chinook caught during openings for the run of summer chum salmon.
And it has put in restrictions on the type of fishing gear the subsistence chum fishery can use to maximize the chance of survival for chinook accidentally caught.
The subsistence fishery for summer chum, which runs more or less at the same time as the chinook, must use dip nets or beach seines.
Both methods ensure fish are alive when they’re brought in, and any chinook can be released alive.
The use of gill nets has been prohibited.
“The chinook salmon run is late and projected to be much smaller than average,” reads an advisory sent out Wednesday by the Department of Fish and Game.
“Fish are now entering the mouths but the run projections still indicate the run may be too small to meet biological escapement. At this time, there is no extra chinook salmon in the run for harvest.”
Holly Carroll, a management biologist with the department, explained in an interview Thursday that it was in 2014 when a complete closure of the chinook fishery was last ordered.
It resulted in the smallest harvest by the Alaska’s subsistence fishery – 3,287 chinook – going back 40 years or more.
It was also in 2014 that saw the Yukon’s Indigenous food fishery harvest a record low number of chinook – just 103, mostly for ceremonial purposes.
There have been no commercial fisheries for chinook on either side of the border for several years.
Carroll explained the decision to close the fishery in 2014 may have been a little late.
This year, they’ve made the call a little earlier, based on what they are seeing with the return of chinook so far, and it’s not good.
As of Wednesday, the Pilot Station sonar upriver from the mouth had estimated 56,259 had passed while the average passage for June 24 is 99,325.
Carroll said the run is late but they should still be seeing many more chinook than they are seeing.
The daily passage of chinook past Pilot Station jumped from 2,611 on Monday to 9,801 on Tuesday and 11,922 on Wednesday.
Carroll said at this point in the run, they’d have to be seeing 20,000 fish a day before they’d crack a smile.
“I really hope in two weeks’ time I am wrong,” she said.
Carroll said they’re not preparing the subsistence fishery for a low harvest year for chinook salmon.
“We are trying to prepare the people that this year they may have no harvest of kings (chinook),” she said.
In recent years, spawning escapement targets for the Yukon side of the border have been met and for the most part exceeded, with the exception of last year. The spawning escapement last year was estimated at 42,052, or slightly below the minimum target of 42,500.
Carroll said she can live with missing the minimum target by 350 last year, and she would be happy if the Yukon reaches similar escapement numbers this year.
The Yukon Salmon Subcommittee, the authority for managing Yukon River salmon in the Yukon, has submitted its annual management plan for this year’s chinook and fall chum fisheries for approval from the federal fisheries minister.
Fishery manager Jesse Trerice of the local Department of Fisheries and Oceans office said the management plan was submitted earlier in June to minister Bernadette Jordan. They have not yet received the minister’s response.
The first chinook usually reach the Yukon-Alaska border in late June or early July.
For several years now, the territory’s Indigenous food fishery has taken a conservative approach to the chinook harvest, in attempts to ensure escapement targets are met with an overall objective of rebuilding the chinook stocks.
The chinook stock has collapsed in the last 20 years, and nobody is absolutely sure why, though it is thought to be environmental and not harvest rates.
In the 1990s, for instance, the total catch on both sides of the border – commercial and subsistence – would regularly fall between 150,000 and 200,000 chinook, with the lion’s share caught in Alaska.
The total run of chinook last year was estimated at 219,000.
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