Amid lowest chinook run ever, no end in sight for Yukon River subsistence closures

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Skiffs line the Yukon River bank near the Kwik’Pak fish plant in Emmonak, Alaska on June 15, 2019. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK)

Subsistence fishing for Yukon River chinook and summer chum salmon will likely remain closed through the end of the season.

It’s a possibility that fishery managers had warned could happen since before the salmon arrived.

Now, with both runs past their midpoints, fisheries officials say there’s no indication that there will be enough fish to meet the goals managers set for fish to escape to their spawning grounds.

“So unless these runs are abnormally, exceptionally, extremely late, it’s unlikely that we’ll get enough fish coming in the last part of this season,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Yukon River Fishery Manager Deena Jallen. Jallen gave the update during a weekly salmon teleconference hosted by the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.

Only about 20% of the average amount of chinook and summer chum have returned to the lower river, according to data from the Pilot Station sonar. It’s the lowest chinook run ever, and the second lowest summer chum run, just barely more than what returned last year.

“So we know that it’s incredibly disappointing,” said Jallen. “It’s extremely hard to see these runs come back so low. It’s hard to have fishing be closed, but that’s unfortunately what we have to do when the runs are this small.”

A caller who identified herself as Ruby in Eagle said that she couldn’t provide a subsistence report during the teleconference since no one had been fishing.

“It’s very, very quiet at the public boat landing in town,” she said. “Almost eerily quiet.”

The community is facing other challenges as wildfires burn across the Alaska Interior.

“Very dry, very hot, lots of smoke. We haven’t had any measurable rain for a very long time, probably a month,” Ruby said.

Downriver, in Russian Mission, a caller who identified herself as Olga said that an elder has been asking her for a taste of fish.

“Then I told her that it’s not us that’s saying that they can’t fish; it’s just a regulation from way up high. And then she was practically crying and said, ‘Well, tell those people not to go shop for four weeks in their store. They have it easy to go to the store to get what they want to eat,’” Olga said.

Pink salmon counts are picking up in the lower river. Subsistence users can target pink and red salmon with 4-inch mesh set nets, 60 or fewer meshes in length, along with other gear types.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fishery Manager Holly Carroll asked fishermen to move their nets if they’re catching a lot of summer chum or chinook. She said that it’s important that each of those fish makes it to the spawning grounds.

“We have had years like this before, certainly for chum in 2000 and 2001, and we recovered. And I have faith that we can recover again and we’ll be fishing that species again, but just not this year,” Carroll said.

She also referenced the moratorium in 2013 and 2014, prohibiting all chinook harvest, and the rebound that followed. She acknowledged that prohibiting fishing for both summer chum and chinook is a compounded hardship.

“So while it may be hard right now, I’m just trying to put out a message for hope that if we let these fish go by now, we will be fishing on them again in five years time, four years time for the chum. That’s my hope. Maybe even less for the chum; maybe two or three years we could see these runs rebound,” Carroll said.

In the meantime, fishing for summer chum and chinook remains closed on the Yukon River for the second consecutive year.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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