Yukon River Salmon Run Looks Dismal this Summer
FAIRBANKS — State and federal fisheries managers say this year’s king salmon run in the Yukon River could be worse than last year’s, which ranked as one of the worst runs in the past 30 years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two agencies responsible for managing the chinook run, have already announced that subsistence fishing will be closed on the first pulse of fish that are expected to hit the river in the next week, the third straight year that’s been the case.
It’s almost certain, too, that there will be no commercial fishing for king salmon for the third year in a row.
“We’re expecting it to be as bad or worse than 2011,” Steve Hayes, Yukon area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.
Last year’s king run was estimated at 143,000 fish and managers are predicting this year’s run will come in somewhere between 109,000 and 146,000.
Biologists say at least 100,000 of those fish must reach their spawning grounds in Alaska and Canada to perpetuate the Yukon’s king run, which doesn’t leave many fish for subsistence fishermen, who catch an average of about 50,000 kings a year to eat.
While biologists wouldn’t come right out and say it, it’s possible no subsistence fishing would be allowed if the chinook return is too small.
“If the run comes in at 100,000 or lower, there is a good chance that there could be very severe restrictions,” Hayes said.
The state is obligated by the Pacific Salmon Treaty, an international agreement between the U.S. and Canada, to manage the run so that approximately 50,000 kings make it across the border into Canada. In the past five years, the border passage goal has been met only twice, including last year when the border passage was estimated at 49,780 kings.
There are typically three or four “pulses” of kings that come into the river from the Bering Sea. The first king salmon that enter the river tend to be the ones that are bound for Canada. By restricting subsistence fishing on the first pulse of kings, it assures that at least some fish should make it to Canada.
The department is scheduled to start counting fish by sonar at Pilot Station, about 120 miles upstream from the mouth of the Yukon, on Friday. Test-net fisheries at the mouth of the river were scheduled to begin Monday.
Subsistence fishing schedules in the lower river are scheduled to go into effect on Thursday and will be implemented farther upstream as the fish move up the river. According to the schedule, fishermen are allowed to fish only certain periods, i.e. two 48-hour periods, during a week.
Once the first pulse of kings is detected at the mouth of the river, subsistence fishing will be halted all the way up the river to allow those fish to reach Canada.
“As we get an in-season assessment we’ll have to decide if the run is worse or better [than projected] and does it warrant more restrictions,” Hayes said.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry at 907-459-7587.