Low salmon runs around the state have subsistence fishermen worried
This year’s Chinook salmon run on the Yukon is poor, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is preparing subsistence closures to meet escapement goals. The closures begin tomorrow, but with so few fish in the river, it’s unknown how long subsistence fishermen will be unable to fish.
Fish & Game worked with the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, a non-profit group of subsistence fishermen and commercial fishing interests, to estimate a king run this year between 109,000 and 146,000 kings.
Steve Hayes, Fish & Game’s summer season manager for the Yukon says that number breaks down to about 50,000 fish in both the U.S. and Canada for escapement, with another 50,000 for subsistence needs in both countries. Even if the run comes in on the higher end of that estimate, Hayes says it still falls short.
By mid-June, only 4,500 kings had passed the Pilot Station Sonar site, about 120 miles from the mouth of the Yukon. Hayes says those numbers should be 10 times bigger, closer to 45,000 kings during an average run, or 12,000 in years with a later run.
To hit escapement targets, and make sure enough king salmon make it upriver to spawning grounds in Canada, Fish & Game is preparing to close subsistence fishing on the lower Yukon as the first pulse of king salmon move upriver. There will be 36 hour closures, one district at a time, amounting to about a 5 day closure. And that could only be the beginning.
Similar closures on fishing on the Kuskokwim this year have met with anger and frustration by subsistence fishermen. While Hayes says no one is happy with the subsistence limits, he says similar weak runs in 2009 and 2011 have helped all involved recognize the importance of conserving the run.
Orville Huntington is the Wildlife and Parks Director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium of the 42 villages of Interior Alaska. He’s also a lifelong subsistence hunter and fisherman. As one who catches his kings upriver, he says most people were prepared for a bad year, and are looking at alternatives.
For now, while subsistence fishermen hope for a strong chum run later in the season, Hayes says Fish & Game will continue to monitor the first pulse of Chinook, and is prepared to implement more closures if necessary.
This follows the closing of the Kenai River from the mouth upstream to Skilak Lake to king salmon fishing beginning Friday, June 22. The closure will be in place during the early run of kings through the end of June.
Fish & Game says the early king run on the Kenai looks to be perhaps the lowest on record.
The department says it can’t even justify catch-and-release fishing because of the additional mortality given the low number of kings in the river.
When the king salmon late run begins July 1, bait and scent will be prohibited.