Another weak king salmon run pinches Yukon River villages

SONAR: More fish got up river than thought, but situation still bleak.

August 19, 2009 

The bad news first: Recent bans on king salmon fishing on the Yukon River have regional leaders predicting this winter will be even tougher than last, when some villagers reported they couldn't afford to buy both food and heating fuel.

Plus, it turns out a sonar station used to count salmon -- a key source of cash and food along the river -- may have undercounted salmon early in the season when river levels were high. More fish were making it upriver than estimated, meaning some of the restrictions may not have been necessary.

"We took some unprecedented measures because we thought the run was looking (to be) one of the poorest we've ever had," said Russ Holder, Yukon River federal fisheries manager. "In hindsight, it doesn't look as poor as those numbers indicated to us."

The good news? By allowing so many fish to make it across the border, Alaska met its treaty obligation to Canada for the first time in three years. The agreement requires that enough kings reach the border to ensure strong future runs -- plus leave the Canadians a few fish of their own to eat and sell.

That's not much comfort for fishermen in Western Alaska, who faced a string of closures and lost a rare source of cash. In one village, fishermen were angry enough to stage an illegal subsistence fishing trip in protest.

"Terrible. Horrible. There's no word that explains my frustration," said Tim Andrew, natural resources director for the Association of Village Council Presidents, which serves 56 Yukon-Kuskokwim villages.

Look for the issue to surface when Obama administration officials hold an Ocean Policy Task Force meeting Friday in Anchorage. AVCP president Myron Naneng said he plans to tell the federal task force that the Yukon's salmon are being mismanaged and that something needs to be done immediately to reduce the number of kings wasted by the massive Bering Sea pollock fleet.

Regulators say they're managing the collapsing king run as best they can and that break-up flooding complicated the counting process by clouding the river with debris. As for the pollock fleet, a council that oversees the fishery placed an unprecedented cap on the number of salmon it can incidentally catch each year back in April. But the new rules won't kick in until at least 2011.

FEDERAL RELIEF REQUEST

King salmon are a staple subsistence food for cash-poor Yukon River villages. The big, oil-rich fish also sell for about $5 a pound, and Lower Yukon fishermen made an average of roughly $4,800 a year selling kings between 2003 and 2007, according to the state.

That doesn't sound like much, but it's one of the few ways to make money if you want to stay in the village. In Emmonak, which became the focus of a food-or-fuel crisis last winter, only 35 percent of adults had year-round jobs in 2008, according to a recent Denali Commission report.

Leaders at every level are now asking for federal relief.

Naneng's Bethel-based group, AVCP, called on the federal Commerce Department to declare a fishery disaster in the region earlier this year. Alaska's congressional delegation supported the request in May, and Gov. Sean Parnell sent a letter Aug. 7 calling on Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to declare a disaster too.

In the past, such declarations have meant federal money for research, infrastructure or payments to fishermen, said Cora Crome, the governor's fisheries policy adviser.

But first the request has to be approved and Congress must appropriate the cash. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official said Wednesday that the request is under review.

LAST WINTER'S CRISIS

Last year fuel prices rocketed just as villages were buying their heating oil by the barge-full. The region made national headlines after an Emmonak man wrote a letter describing his neighbors struggling to both pay for fuel and to feed their families over the winter. Bloggers picked up the cause and people donated tens of thousands of pounds of food, shipped by plane to roadless Yup'ik villages along the Lower Yukon.

Oil prices have since dipped, with the average price in most Alaska communities falling by 23 cents between February and June, according to a new report by the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs.

Still, the savings haven't reached many villages where vendors are still selling the high-priced fuel they bought last year, said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, a research analyst for the state.

Andrew and Naneng, the AVCP officials, say they expect this winter to be worse than the last. People made less money fishing, have less cash to fuel their fall moose-hunting trips and are saving fewer salmon than in the past. "They didn't put away any king salmon for food or other salted salmon like they usually do," Naneng said.

On top of it all, the fall chum salmon run is looking worse than expected, meaning even more fishing bans.

BANS ON FISHING

To try and reverse declining chinook runs this summer, Yukon regulators once again banned commercial fisherman from pursuing kings. They took the extra step of barring subsistence fishing on the first pulse of Canada-bound chinook, using a series of rolling closures that followed the fish up the river.

After that, subsistence fishing time was cut in half. Commercial fishermen who caught the smaller, less lucrative chum weren't allowed to sell any kings they happened to catch in their nets.

The bans worked. Maybe too well.

While the treaty called for roughly 55,000 salmon to make it to Canada, closer to 70,000 salmon have been counted in the village of Eagle, about three miles from the border.

In hindsight, some of the restrictions probably weren't necessary, said Holder, with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We would have been OK without as severe conservation actions as we took," he said.

Holder gave the ban on subsistence fishing for the first pulse of kings as an example, but state Fish and Game summer area manager Steve Hayes disagrees.

Both regulators say it might have been OK to let chum fishermen sell the kings they caught incidentally, but Hayes said he won't know for sure until he knows the final size of the run.

The regulators say they made the right decisions based on what they knew at the time.

The problem was, they had an inaccurate estimate, partly because the Pilot Station sonar under-estimated the number of fish for the first two weeks of the season, Holder said.

But even if the sonar had been working perfectly and allowed regulators to loosen subsistence fishing restrictions, Hayes said there still wouldn't have been enough kings for commercial fishing.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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