FAIRBANKS - Yukon River salmon are back.
The river recorded its best fall chum run in five years and a record-breaking coho run.
"We're optimistic it's an indication conditions are improving and production will recover," said commercial fisheries biologist Fred Bue with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
The river has had a series of poor fish returns since 1998.
But this year's king salmon run was the biggest in several years, both in terms of numbers and size of fish. A sonar counter at Pilot Station in the lower river counted 254,000 kings this year, the highest number of kings counted since the sonar was installed more than a decade ago.
"The run came back stronger than we anticipated," said biologist Tracy Lingnau in Anchorage.
This year's commercial king harvest was the biggest it's been since the fishery took a nosedive in 1998. Fishermen netted 41,000 kings and probably could have caught twice as many if biologists hadn't kept such a tight reign on the run early on, Lingnau said. The poor runs of previous years had biologists walking a conservative line.
"We left a lot of fish on the table that could have been harvested," Lingnau said.
Some commercial fishermen felt Fish and Game waited too long to open the season, said Jill Klein of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.
"Fishermen on the lower river wished they could have fished on a bigger part of the pulse rather than the tail end of the pulse," she said.
While biologists are still tallying the fall chum run, the rough estimate is around 900,000, which is close to the historical average, said Bue. The run was twice what biologists were expecting and the biggest return in six years.
"We don't know why the production was so high," Bue said.
This year's Yukon River silver salmon run was the biggest biologists have ever seen. The coho count at Pilot Station was 277,000 when biologists pulled the plug on the sonar at the end of August. The previous high count for coho at the sonar was 224,000 and the average is 130,000.
The only Yukon River salmon run that didn't show improvement this year was the summer chum run. While the sonar counter registered 1.2 million summer chums, biologists aren't sure if there were that many fish because numbers from escapement projects in spawning tributaries didn't support the sonar count, said Lingnau.
Still, the summer chum run was better this year than it was a few years ago when it bottomed out with a return of 394,000 in 2001.
While experts can't pinpoint a reason for the upturn in production this year, most speculate it has something to do with the marine environment.
"I think the ocean survival was better," said Lingnau, noting the number of 6-year-old kings that returned this year.
This year's king salmon, for example, appeared to be in better shape than fish from the last few years, too.
"They were fat and robust ... like footballs," said Russ Holder, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Lingnau said, "We heard that throughout the whole Yukon, which is a very good sign. There was plenty of food out there."
The fact that the coho run continues to improve also is a sign that the problem may be in the ocean, not the freshwater streams where the fish are hatched from eggs. Coho spend only one year in the ocean while chums spend three years at sea and kings are in the ocean for four or five years.