Yukon blues

Posted: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

There is a doomsday forecast on the Yukon River, too few kings to permit even a subsistence fishery and too few for escapement needs.

If any geographical feature epitomizes the lure and majesty of Alaska it would be the Yukon River. It has been a major channel of commerce since Gold Rush days. The sternwheelers took supplies from St. Michaels all the way to Dawson in Yukon Territory to sustain the gold camp on the Klondike. Before the discovery of gold the Klondike was known for its big salmon. The salmon came all the way from the Bering Sea to journey's end 2,000 miles upriver. What reserves of fat such salmon had to have to make such a trip.

Sometimes it is harder to maintain a king salmon run, than pinks, chums, sockeyes or silvers. The Taku once had a fine run in the 1950s, but now the numbers are much lower.

When I first went to Bristol Bay in 1977 and bought fish on the Nushagak, our scow came into the dock loaded to the top of the hatches with king salmon. Now the run is in serious decline. Some folks are suggesting that the poor return to the Bering Sea rivers is due to the trawl pollock fishery. In 2007, the fleet intercepted 122,000 king salmon. These kings can't be processed and the carcasses have to be thrown back into the ocean. No one knows for sure where the king salmon originate, and what proportion belongs to the Yukon or to other Pacific Coast rivers.

To get a better idea of the problem, I visited the headquarters of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau and spoke to Sue Aspelund, Stefanie Moreland and Herman Savikko.

First, let's look at the pollock fishery. This is a huge endeavor. There are about 90 catcher boats delivering principally to Dutch Harbor and 20 catcher processors. Most of these vessels are home ported out of Seattle.

There is a winter season from January to June targeting the spawning Pollock north of the Eastern Aleutians called the A season. The B season is September through November and is spread out over a larger area of the Bering Sea.

Now hold on to your hat. Last year the fleet caught about 2.24 billion pounds of pollock, that is billion not million. As Herman Savikko says, "This is the largest commercial activity on the planet Earth," rivaled, in the piscatorial realm, only by the anchovy and sardine fisheries off the coast of South America. If you want to try some pollock, go to McDonald's for a fish burger.

The regulating authority is the National Marine Fisheries Service. The advisory body is the 11 voting members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Six are Alaskans. They meet five times a year.

There is a real concern that the Pollock fleet may be harming some of the Pacific coast king salmon runs. The council is considering putting a "hard cap" on the annual king salmon by-catch. When it is reached, fishing ceases. This would be either 68,000 kings if cooperative efforts are voluntarily made by the fleet or 47,000 if not. It is expected this might go into effect in 2009.

When I was buying fish in the 1970s, I always wanted to go further north to the Yukon. I got only as far as the Nushagak in Bristol Bay. There's a river still ahead if the kings thrive once again on the great Yukon.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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