ANCHORAGE - Commercial fishing for Yukon River chinooks will likely be closed again this summer, but subsistence fishermen shouldn't face the severe restrictions they endured last year, according to a preseason plan announced by fishery managers on Thursday.
With the outlook for returning kings slightly better than last year's, subsistence fishing should once again include 36-hour and 48-hour fishing periods - depending on location - and net-mesh of any size. Subsistence fishermen should also be able to wet their nets as the first, big wave of salmon head up the Yukon.
Of course, the plan could change, warned Steve Hayes, the fishery manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Biologists predict this summer's king salmon run will be average to below-average, with 155,000 to 226,000 kings expected to return. That's slightly improved from last year's below-average to poor outlook.
The Yukon River king fishery, once a money-maker for villages along the river, has struggled for much of the last decade. Commercial fishing has been closed the last two years.
When runs were steadier before 1999, the number of returning salmon averaged about 250,000.
According to the pre-season plan, subsistence fishing can happen around the clock until June 7, shortly before the first wave of fish usally arrives in the river.
After that, managers will institute the same windows that fishermen experienced before last year's super-tight restrictions. Villages at the mouth will be limited first, to 36-hour fishing windows. The fishing windows will move upriver along with the first wave of fish, said Hayes.
That's a big improvement from last year, when fishermen sat on the bank for several days early in the season - fishing was closed as the first wave of fish passed. When fishing was allowed, the fishing windows were halved to as low as 18 hours.
During the season, if the run looks like it will be smaller than the low-end estimate, managers will remove a fishing period from the down-river district and roll that temporary closure up the river along with the run. That will essentially shut down fishing in villages for about five days at a time, Hayes said.
If the run shapes up to be bigger than the high-end estimate, managers might consider allowing some commercial fishing, said Hayes.
Hayes announced the plan Thursday at an Anchorage meeting that brought together state and federal biologists and dozens of fishermen from tribal groups along the river. The Yukon Drainage Fisheries Development Association organized the gathering.
Emotions were high last year when villagers who rely on kings for money and food watched salmon swim past.
The restrictions helped meet the obligations of a U.S.-Canada treaty designed to get some Yukon salmon into that country for fishing and spawning.
Managers had hoped to put at least 55,000 into Canada last year for those purposes. About 70,000 actually passed the border, leading to complaints from Alaska fishermen that they'd been restricted needlessly.
Contributing to the high border passage: Last year's Yukon River run was larger than initially thought, because unusually high, silty waters prevented accurate counts early in the season. That mistake angered fishermen too.
At the meeting, Hayes conceded that the restrictions might seem excessive in hindsight.
"You can say that most likely we wouldn't have needed these severe restrictions," he said.
But salmon runs have always been difficult to predict, and last year's regulatory actions worked, he said. The large number of salmon that reached spawning grounds should result in stronger runs in the future, he said.
"Unfortunately, it did come at the expense of subsistence fishermen, which is not what we intended to do," he said.
The meeting offered none of the fireworks between fishermen and managers that made headlines last year. Instead, many in the audience offered suggestions.
Fred Huntington, of Galena, said less fish will return than biologists predict. Not much snow fell this year, so the river will likely run low. That will mean warmer water temperatures and, according to local history, a poor run, he said.
Managers must be ready to use emergency tools to restrict fishing, he said.