Low king salmon runs puzzle biologists

Researchers alarmed fewer fish are returning to Alaska waters

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Even before this fishing season began, Alaska fishery biologists expected they could be in for a funky year.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Cold waters in the Alaska Current sweeping the Gulf of Alaska warned them salmon were likely to return later than normal.

Unexpected, though, was that fewer of the fish would come back at all. Some biologists are wondering now whether a northern ocean chilled by La Niña - El Niño's frigid alter ego - might have done more than just delay returns.

Some places, the result has been a disaster.

Commercial fisheries on the Yukon River are closed. Subsistence fishing there has been cut back significantly. And biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are still worried that too few salmon will escape nets and fish wheels to ensure future runs.

The spawning goal is 100,000 of the big fish upriver. Projections based on early sonar counts at Pilot Point on the lower river indicate the entire king run might number only 100,000, possibly less. It's normally at least twice as large.

Some Canadians are already calling for a moratorium on fishing for Yukon kings. They are worried Alaska fisheries could snare enough fish bound for Canada, where much of the Yukon run spawns, that there won't be enough to meet a treaty-guaranteed goal of 45,000 spawners - let alone additional fish to support traditional Native fisheries.

"My family has gone without salmon for ... this is going to be the third year we don't get any," First Nations' Chief Carl Sidney told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Sidney lives in Teslin, a small community along the Alaska Highway south of Whitehorse, Yukon, and chairs the Yukon Salmon Committee.

Sidney is not happy with Alaska salmon managers.

"We are at the end of the line, and we're the ones that see this fish is in trouble ... and they will not listen," he said. "They wouldn't listen, and they kept (their) commercial fishing and their subsistence fishery over there. That's totally out of hand."

Alaska officials have defended early management decisions based on indications that salmon runs all over the state are late.

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