Alaska editorial: Salmon mysteries

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

A chum salmon just can’t replace a king salmon. But in a year when the king salmon barely showed up, it’s encouraging to see healthy chum runs in the Yukon River system this summer.

The abundance of chums should provide for people along the rivers who rely upon salmon for a good portion of their food during the winter months. We shouldn’t see a repeat of the disastrous years in the 1990s, when the chum runs crashed and people in the villages couldn’t even keep their dog teams fed.

There’s a reason chums are called dog salmon. Traditionally, kings have been the preferred salmon for people, while chums have provided for the dogs. However, chum salmon are usable in a pinch. So having lots of them is a good backup in a year such as this when the kings were so scarce.

According to figures from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the king run in the Yukon is winding down and probably will total only about 109,000 fish.

Meanwhile, the summer chum run was closing on 2 million. The fall chum run also is coming in strong, with about 1.3 million expected.

Since almost all the kings have passed upriver, subsistence fishing for chums is wide open on most of the Yukon. It remains closed only in the upper stretch, from the Fort Yukon area to the border, to let as many kings as possible reach spawning grounds in Canada.

The failure of the king run can’t be smoothed over with chums. Commercial fishing for kings was shut down this year. That will create hardship — the commercial king fishery provides cash, especially on the lower Yukon. And even the most devoted followers of today’s subsistence lifestyle must have cash for everything from guns to gasoline.

The chum runs are making up some of the loss. Commercial fishermen in the lower and middle Yukon caught a total of about 315,000 summer chums. Another 150,000 fall chums had been taken in the commercial fishery as of Sunday, and fishing will continue if the run remains strong.

But, at just 75 cents per pound, the chum price isn’t near what a king could bring. The fall chums are mixed with coho salmon, which are bringing $1 per pound but aren’t as numerous.

The poor king salmon returns on the Yukon system remain a mystery. And why are chum runs at the same time relatively healthy? Whatever the reason for the contrast, it is a welcome one this summer.

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