Yukon River catch to be limited due to low king numbers

If run is stronger than predicted, restrictions will be eased

Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

FAIRBANKS - State and federal fish managers anticipate another poor run of king salmon in the Yukon River and will limit catch opportunities this summer for commercial and subsistence fishermen.

Fishing will be substantially reduced to get more fish to spawning grounds in Canada.

The restrictions are bad news for subsistence fishermen, said Mike Smith, subsistence resource management director for Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks. Yukon River villagers are worried they will not catch enough fish to feed their families this winter, Smith said.

"They're scared," Smith said.

The plan unveiled Friday calls for no fishing on the first "pulse" of king salmon to hit the river, which usually happens in June, and limited fishing after that.

The plan specifies a 50 percent reduction in subsistence fishing time for kings after the initial pulse until biologists determine the strength of the run.

The first pulse of kings historically makes up about 25 percent of the entire run but has been considerably smaller the past two years.

Steve Hayes, manager of the Yukon River chinook run for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said biologists use test fisheries near the river mouth to determine when the first pulse of fish hits the river.

Once that happens, even subsistence fishing will be closed to protect the fish.

After the first pulse moves through a district on the river, managers will allow subsistence fishing in the district to open, but only at half the time it traditionally has been allowed.

"To meet our escapement goals into Canada, we have to protect that first pulse," Hayes said.

Canada-bound king salmon make up approximately half of the Yukon River chinook run, which historically averages about 250,000 fish.

The number of kings reaching the border the past two years has fallen short of the number specified in the U.S.-Canada Yukon River Salmon Agreement, a treaty signed in 2001.

Biologists project the 2009 king run to be similar, if not worse, than the last two. The king run last year was estimated at 180,000 fish and the 2007 run was about 175,000.

Yukon subsistence fishermen catch about 50,000 kings annually.

According to department statistics, it takes at least 170,000 fish to satisfy subsistence and escapement needs in the river.

The Yukon River king salmon run usually consists of four pulses, with the first two comprising the bulk of the run, Hayes said. If the first pulse of kings is weak, as it was last year, managers may impose more subsistence restrictions, Hayes said.

If the chinook run is stronger than expected, managers will relax the restrictions.

Last year, about 38,000 kings reached the border, 7,000 short of the treaty goal of 45,000. In 2007, the state fell about 3,000 fish shy of the border escapement goal of 43,000.

The Canadian escapement goal this year has been established at 45,000 or more kings.

With average to above-average chum and coho runs projected for the Yukon River, managers hope fishermen will focus on other stocks to take pressure off the king run, Hayes said. The state also has asked fishermen to abstain from sending king salmon to relatives and using them for trade.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will limit subsistence fishing to federally qualified rural subsistence users who live along the river, said federal biologist Russ Holder. That means fishermen who have moved to urban areas such as Anchorage or Fairbanks will not be allowed to fish.

"That basically means we're providing a subsistence priority for those people living out on river and using the fish," Holder said. "We're trying to keep fish that are harvested on the river."

Smith, the Tanana Chiefs subsistence director, called the restrictions "marginal at best" in getting more fish to Canada. Only 50 percent of the first pulse of kings are Canadian fish, and most are males, he said.

"So what do you get to the spawning grounds, a bunch of males," he said.

Females carrying eggs typically show up in the second and third pulses of fish, Smith said.

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