FAIRBANKS - It looks like this year's king salmon run on the Yukon River could be one of the worst, forcing federal fisheries managers to curtail subsistence fishing.
"This is really a serious situation," Russ Holder, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Monday. "If the run does not significantly improve, folks upriver are going to have difficulty reaching 50 percent of their subsistence harvest goals this year for chinook salmon."
People living along Alaska's biggest waterway seek out the oil-rich Yukon kings to put up for the winter.
"That's what most people are targeting," Holder said.
The low return of Yukon kings prompted state and federal fish managers to cut subsistence time in half, a restriction that took effect Monday. Fishermen in the lower river are also being restricted to a smaller net size so they catch summer chum salmon, not kings.
As of Sunday, the sonar count at Pilot Station was just 30,200 king salmon, said Steve Hayes of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The average sonar count for that date is about 63,000, he said.
Biologists now are projecting a run of fewer than 100,000 kings at Pilot Station. The minimum number required for escapement purposes in both Alaska and Canada and subsistence harvest is 130,000.
"It's cause for concern," Hayes said of the low return.
Based on a below-average run last year, fisheries biologists were bracing for another weak run this year, but the return appears to be worse than experts predicted. Test fisheries near the mouth of the river, sonar counts farther up the river at Pilot Station and reports from subsistence fishermen on the lower and middle Yukon all point to an exceptionally weak chinook run this year, Hayes said.
The Yukon king run usually consists of three to four pulses of kings, with the first two typically making up the bulk of the run, he said.
The fact that the first pulse of salmon, detected June 14-17, resulted in only about 10,000 fish passing the sonar counter at Pilot Station is not a good sign, he said.
"We would have liked to see 30,000 or 40,000 fish," Hayes said.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that managers have not seen any sign of a second pulse yet. Normally, the second pulse hits the river within two or three days after the first wave of kings.
Making matters worse for people living on the upper portion of the river is the fact that the first two pulses of kings usually contain a high proportion of fish bound for Canada, while later-arriving fish tend to be Alaska stocks. Last year, Alaska came up 31,000 fish short of meeting its obligations to Canada as part of the Yukon River Salmon Agreement, an international treaty between Canada and the U.S. regarding management of Yukon River king salmon.
"Those first two pulses really do contribute to a much greater number of folks along the river," Holder said.
If the run doesn't improve, further restrictions will probably be placed on subsistence fishermen in the middle and lower Yukon, Hayes said.
Meanwhile, the summer chum salmon run is "so-so," Holder said. The sonar count for summer chums at Pilot Station is about 240,000, and it should be somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000, he said.