In what has been year after year of bad news about the annual migration of Yukon River king salmon from the Bering Sea to spawning grounds in Canada and points in between, there may, finally, be a sigh of relief. Fisheries managers were bracing for what could have been the worst run on record. But with the kings returning early, and a third wave of them pushing through now, it appears the run is stronger than anticipated.
“The 2014 run is on track to be near the high end of the preseason outlook,” said Eric Newland, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from his office in Emmonak, a lower Yukon village where the river branches and heads to sea.
That's good news, considering the 2013 run, at some 76,000 fish clocked by a counter close to the Canadian border, was the worst the state had seen in more than 30 years, punctuating a decade of increasing declines.
As of June 25 this year, 110,600 chinook, or king, salmon had passed by a sonar counter in Pilot Station, a community upriver from the mouth but still early in the 1,265-mile swim to the Canadian border. Before the season, state biologists forecast an "extremely poor" run of 64,000 to 121,000 fish.
Village of Marshall seeks kings
At least one village hopes there are enough kings in the river to allow fisherman to go after them, filling freezers and drying racks. On June 24 the Native Village of Marshall, the next village upriver from Pilot Station, asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to target the fish for subsistence harvest.
The state of Alaska has a treaty obligation with Canada requiring it to get 42,500 to 55,000 chinook across the border, and meeting this goal is the Department of Fish and Game's top priority when managing the run. Giving people who live off the land an opportunity to harvest the fish is the second priority. The village's appeal to a federal co-manager of the river comes because the federal government is obligated to provide priority to rural residents for subsistence harvests of fish and wildlife resources on federal lands.
The way the village of Marshall sees it, enough kings have entered the river to meet the Canadian escapement goal. If that goal is met, villagers should be allowed to fish. That's according to Nicholai Duny, the Native Village of Marshall president, who describes the community as “historically, customarily and traditionally dependent on chinook salmon for sustenance, spirituality and wellness.”
Granting the request may not be that simple. First, there must be agreement that there is a harvestable surplus of chinook, something the state isn't inclined to do at this point. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could do its own assessment, but that will take time, and as the fish are swimming upriver now, time is not on the villagers' side.
Wacky sonar fish counts
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking to see if there's another way,” said Andrea Medeiros, public affairs specialist for USFWS-Alaska. What that other way might be isn't known, she said.
Historically, there have been fluctuations -- some quite large -- in fish counts between the Yukon's mouth and the border, and biologists are wary of relying on the accuracy of a single data point to make declarations about run strength. The count when the fish enter the river is used to estimate abundance while a migration is underway. The count at the other other end, before the fish cross into Canada, is used in tandem with harvest data and escapement in Alaska to create the estimate of the run's total size.
In 2013, biologists estimated 117,100 kings passed by the Pilot Station sonar. That same year, the Eagle sonar measured 30,600 fish going by. The total run size estimate for the year came in at 76,000 kings. In 2000, however, the early sonar counted 44,400 fish, while the total run size estimate was 105,500.
The Department of Fish and Game is “cautiously optimistic” that it will meet its 2014 chinook escapement goals, Newland said, but he added that's with the run being fully shielded from fishing pressure. The department's current estimate is that 43,100 to 60,100 of the fish currently in the river are headed for the border.
Abundant chum salmon
To date, no harvest of chinook has been allowed, either for commercial or subsistence use (the Yukon sees almost no sportfishing). And protecting the chinook has meant restricting the way another and far more abundant species of salmon, chum, is pursued by fishermen. Last year, more than 3.5 million chums entered the Yukon. Because the migration of the two species overlaps part of the year, conserving kings means taking steps to ensure fishing for chums is done in a way that prevents, to the extent possible, king salmon from being caught.
This year, that has meant restricting fishermen to the beach -- they aren't allowed to drift with a gill net in the river. Only dip nets and beach-anchored seine nets are allowed. Any kings caught must be returned to the water.
It's possible, Newland said, that if the season continues to go better than expected, subsistence fisherman may be allowed to gill net for chum using a small enough net size to avoid kings. If a king were caught incidentally, fishermen would be allowed to keep it. But in no scenario would the sale of king salmon be allowed.
“People should not expect to meet needs for king salmon,” Newland said. An optimistic outlook is improvement, but not enough to shift to a targeted king salmon harvest, he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the size of chinook salmon runs and sonar counts.
By JILL BURKE