FAIRBANKS — A dire Yukon River king salmon forecast that could bottom out below last year’s low returns has some rural Alaska residents calling for a moratorium on subsistence fishing for the species.
“These fish are not going to be here forever, not the way we’re catching them,” Orville Huntington said Tuesday during a pre-season planning meeting with fisheries managers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It wouldn’t hurt to take a few years off and say, ‘Let them go.’ There are other fish out there.”
Huntington lives on the Koyukuk River, a tributary of the Yukon. He works as director of wildlife and parks for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Walter Stickman, of Nulato, read a letter from the Nulato Tribal Council that called for a moratorium.
“We have made sacrifices in past years and our sacrifices seem to have no results on the declining chinook salmon,” Stickman said. “The moratorium may or may not influence the 2015 projected run, but it will unite the rural subsistence fishermen toward a goal, potentially for the common good.”
Biologists estimate that just 76,000 of Alaska’s largest salmon species returned to the Yukon last year. It was a quarter of what the run averaged 15 to 20 years ago and the worst return since 1982, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
State biologists forecast 64,000 to 121,000 kings this year. With runs lately at the low end of the projection range, biologist Stephanie Schmidt said, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will manage for a run of only 64,000 kings.
The 2013 numbers led to restrictions on subsistence fishing, and opportunities this year could be even more limited. About half of the run comes from Canada, and an international treaty requires that a minimum of 42,500 kings reach the border, Schmidt said.
Restrictions last year resulted in the lowest Alaska subsistence harvest on record, but biologists estimated that only 30,500 fish reached Canada, the fifth time in seven years that the total has fallen short of treaty obligations.
Besides closures, fish managers are considering other measures to conserve king salmon while allowing the catch of chum salmon, whitefish, sheefish, northern pike and suckers. One strategy is requiring dip nets instead of gill nets to catch chum salmon so kings could be released alive. Another is a ban on gill nets when kings are in the river.