Alaska exceeds Canadian chinook escapement goal, decline remains a mystery

Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon. (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The Yukon River Chinook salmon run is nearly complete according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It is the first time in roughly eight years that escapement goals lined out in a treaty between Alaska and Canada have been met.

This year, managers up and down the Yukon River set restrictions on both commercial and subsistence harvest of King salmon. They were hoping to see up 55,000 fish to pass into Canada.

Numbers recorded through the first week of August show that more than 60,000 King salmon have passed the sonar counter at Eagle.  Fred Bue is the Yukon Area Inseason Manager for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This is not a good year,” he says, “but with all the efforts by everybody, I think we’re continuing to put fish on the spawning ground and hopefully that holds us over until the production trend changes.”

It’s unclear why the King salmon population has been in decline for years. Bue says biologists do have a theory for this year’s uptick in returning Chinook.

“One indication is that five year old age class is fairly strong and in 2009, we had a fairly good escapement that year,” Bue explains. “So, we are anticipating the six year olds to be fairly good next year.  females tend to be six year old fish, so we’re hoping to get a higher percentage of females in the return next year.”

More females means more fish eggs, which could potentially mean more fish in the future. King salmon are just now arriving at their Canadian spawning grounds. Bue says the Department of Fish and Game is working with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans on how best to manage them.

“Roughly half the Chinook salmon spawn in Canada,” says Bue, “so a lot of the information we get we need to share with both harvest on both sides of the border and the escapement and what gets into the spawning grounds that’s the biology of the fish that we’re seeing in the returns.  Alaska is only a portion of the story and Canada is the other half so we need to combine our information.”

Canadian managers have also imposed commercial and subsistence harvest restrictions on King salmon. With more than 95% of this year’s kind salmon having already passed through Alaska, restrictions in Alaska’s portion of the Upper Yukon have been lifted.

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