FAIRBANKS - Subsistence fishermen in Interior and Western Alaska are once again facing the prospect of empty fish racks after state and federal biologists announced Monday that subsistence fishing in the entire Yukon River drainage will be closed due to a poor chum salmon run.
It's the sixth year in a row that chum returns on the river have been weak.
"It doesn't look they're coming this year, that's the reason we're closing it," said federal fisheries biologist Russ Holder with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's poor and it needs protection."
As of Sunday, only 156,000 fall chums had been counted by a sonar counter in the lower Yukon river at Pilot Station. Normally, based on the seven-year average, about 300,000 fish would have passed the sonar by now.
Biologists are now projecting a fall chum run of fewer than 350,000 fish, the minimum number of fish needed to meet escapement needs.
"Our management plan says we need 350,000 fish just for escapement and that's without any subsistence harvest," said state fisheries biologist Fred Bue at the state Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Subsistence fishing on the Yukon River was closed in 1998 and 2000.
The fall chum run averaged upward of 1 million fish before unexpectedly going into the tank in 1997. It has yet to turn around and this year's run may rival that of two years ago, when only 270,000 fall chums returned.
The closure will affect people who live on the upper Yukon River and the Tanana River more than it will people who live on the lower Yukon, said Bue.
While most people who live along the river rely on king salmon for their winter fish supply, villagers on the upper Yukon and Tanana rivers mainly use fall chum salmon to feed their sled dogs, which they use to gather wood, haul water and compete in races.
The fact that most villagers were able to put up king and summer chum salmon earlier this season lessens the impact of the closure somewhat.
"If we had had a poor summer chum run and a poor chinook run it would be devastating," Holder said.