The mighty king salmon may be the icon of the Yukon River, but the fish is fighting for its future.
Last summer, the salmon returned in record-low numbers. It also marked the second year in a row that Alaska failed to meet its treaty obligation to Canada.
This season, fishery managers are cautiously optimistic that enough of the kings, or Chinooks as they are also called, will swim across the border to reach their spawning grounds.
The minimum number of salmon to meet the terms of the US-Canadian agreement is about 45,000 fish.
“There are some indications we might be seeing a rebound,” said John Linderman, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries manager who oversees the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim regions. “The run came back a little stronger than expected. But again, it’s still a weak run. It’s not like there’s a light switch where it goes from poor to great.”
Linderman and other state managers are responsible for meeting the targets of the agreement with Canada, which has happened only twice in the last seven years. The run has been struggling for about the last 15 years. The last five years have been particularly hard on the Lower Yukon, where fishing restrictions have grown increasingly tighter to protect kings.
The reasons why the Chinooks have disappeared are still a mystery. Scientists believe the problems are out in the ocean.
“We kind of referred to that ocean portion of the life cycle as being a bit of black box of information,” Linderman said.
Although changing temperatures in the ocean or too many Chinooks caught as bycatch on the Bering Sea may be contributing to the decline, there’s not an immediate fix.
That’s why people who live along this vast 2,200 miles of river are the salmon’s best hope – to let them swim by and rebound.
Linderman said it’s a tough question to answer, but Yukon fishermen need to consider it, even if they are not to blame for the failed runs.
“If you had not taken as many fish, if you had gotten more fish onto the spawning grounds in those prior years, you might be fishing right now,” Linderman said.
But that doesn’t make the burden of conservation easy.
The only Yukon king you can legally harvest is the salmon caught in Fish and Game’s test fisheries. But this year, staffers have tried to release as many as possible.
Still, every morning, there’s a crowd of people at Fish and Game’s dock in Emmonak, waiting to meet the fish.
“Everybody’s hoping for a king,” said Linda Hootch. “Every day. It’s really hard now.”
As it turns out, there are plenty of chum salmon to go around but only one king to be had – a small jack.
After scale samples were taken, Hootch’s friend Marie Levi, an elder, wound up with the king. Tribal governments in Emmonak have asked that elders and the disabled get top priority for salmon caught in the test fishery.
In the heyday of the Yukon fishery’s history, there were enough Chinooks to support both commercial and subsistence harvests on the Lower Yukon, as well as meet escapement targets in Canada.
The average run ranged between 250,000-300,000 kings. Today it’s around 150,000 fish.
First Nations communities on the Canadian side of the border were the first to feel the brunt of the struggling Chinook runs.
About half the stocks are of Canadian origin, yet Alaskans harvest most of the fish – another source of frustration.
But thanks to groups like the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, there’s been a steady dialogue between communities up and down the river.
YRDFA sponsored a recent exchange that brought a group of Canadians for a look at villages on the Alaskan side of the Yukon.
A delegation of Russians from Kamchatka also joined the tour. They too are dealing with failed Chinook runs on the Bolshaya River and want to know more about how Alaskans and Canadians are working together to rebuild the Yukon run.
Sergei Vakhrin, president of a group called Saving Salmon Together, blames high seas fishing and caviar poaching for Bolshaya’s diminished runs. He believes it’ll take a grassroots movement to fight these problems and said the Alaskans and Canadians are further along in this process.
And that gives him hope.
“We say in Russia, hope dies last,” Vakhrin said.
Don Toews, who lives on Lake LeBarge at the very end of the Yukon salmon run, said he remains hopeful. However, he acknowledges that-cross border relationships have often been strained – that it’s taken many years for communities on both sides of the border to understand the impacts, which are different on each country’s half of the river.
For example, some First Nations communities have not been able to fish for kings for a decade. Some have voluntarily stopped to help more of the fish reproduce.
Even so, the culture camps have continued with salmon bought from outside the region. The elders want to be sure young people know how to maintain the tradition of putting up fish.
“These cultural camps are so important to them. It’s part of their heritage. They want to maintain until the Chinook come back,” said Toews, who is optimistic this will happen someday.
Toews says he’s especially encouraged by efforts on the Lower Yukon to conserve king salmon.
As the fish passed the lower river, fishermen used dipnets instead of gillnets. The gear change allowed king salmon to be released alive, while at the same time allowing the Lower Yukon fishermen to target chum salmon, which they sell commercially.
Although the journey is far from over, with many sacrifices still ahead, Toews believes there is now common ground between the Canadian and Alaskan Yukoners.
It’s never easy to give up something so important, Toews said.
“That’s natural. We want to provide for our needs, our family’s needs,” Toews said. “But we also want to ensure that our children have Chinook in the future, and that’s more important than meeting all my needs at this time.”
He sees signs that Alaskans feel the same.
“We have a lot of wise people in these communities on both sides of the Yukon,” Toews said.
Editor’s note: KTVA would like to thank Leila Loder for her help in translating interviews from Russian into English for this story. Loder is the Western Pacific Program Manager for the Wild Salmon Center in Portland.