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Can fish wheels save Alaska's Yukon River salmon fishery?

Jill Burke
Salmon drying in the sun in Kaltag, Alaska. About 200 people live in the small, riverside village, far beyond Alaska's road system.
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries
A salmon processor in Kaltag, Alaska
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries
Yukon River Gold, LLC promised Kaltag it would only hire locals and says it has kept its promise. But until two months ago, the outlook for the company's Kaltag venture was bleak. It's only been able to operate three of the last five years, and failed to make a profit yet.
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries
One benefit of fish wheels is the ability to immediately return unwanted fish to the river.
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries
Most residents along the Yukon River live off of the land, hunting and fishing to survive. Commercial fishing for Yukon chums once provided a reliable source of income. But the when the chum fishery crashed, so did commercial fishing.
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries
A fish wheel at work on the Yukon River near Kaltag, Alaska
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries

No one really knows what's causing one of Alaska's most prized catches to slowly disappear. All anyone can be sure of is that something is interfering with the annual return of Alaska’s mightiest fish, the king salmon, to Alaska's mightiest river, the Yukon. And the failure of these fish to migrate upriver in droves is threatening the livelihoods of struggling Alaskans who need them to survive.

Drastic declines in the king runs started in 1998 and have yet to recover. How bad is it?

In 1997, the river saw more than 300,000 kings come through. A year later, fewer than 200,000 showed up. By 2000, the run size had plummeted to close to 100,000.

Village communities of Alaska's western Yukon River delta and others Interior Alaska riverbanks are preparing for yet another dismal fishing season. No one knows exactly how many kings will return, but some scientists believe 2012 could be nearly as weak as the crash of 2000.

Biologists predict a below-average run, perhaps just 109,000 fish. An international treaty requires that the United States ensure about half those fish make it into Canada. Some Yukon kings spawn in Alaska, but many return to gravel beds across the border. At one time, it was thought that the Canadian-bound kings that weren't returning. Now, biologists suspect fish from both nations are struggling and that something in the rivers, the oceans, or both is preventing young fish from reaching adulthood.

Farther south, miraculous rebound

“We don't know what is limiting it,” said Fred Bue, subsistence fisheries branch chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks, one of the agencies that monitors and manages access to the run. Biologists suspect something is going wrong while the fish are circulating in the Bering Sea. Access to food. Water temperature. Water flow. It's difficult to know.

With king salmon in California and Oregon projected to make a near-miraculous rebound this year, fish scientists wonder why some kings are doing well and others aren't. And in Alaska, kings aren't just missing from the Yukon River. The Kuskokwim River, Norton Sound, the Nushagak River in the Bristol Bay Region and Cook Inlet also face depleted runs.

The bleak numbers and international treaty requirements on the Yukon mean that Alaskans who fish for food and those who fish for money will be forced to keep their nets dry until Canada gets its quota – at least 42,500 fish.

But kings aren't the only salmon headed for spawning grounds when the annual migrations arrive. Chum salmon pouring in from the sea are also fat and strong and ready to make what can be a more than 2,000-mile journey upriver. The length of that odyssey makes Yukon salmon so prized. Fueled by healthy reserves of omega oils, they are nutritious and deliver a coveted, buttery-moist flesh. Although the chum salmon runs are projected to be much stronger than the kings, many villagers and commercial fisherman will be forced to stand on the banks while the fish pass.

“Not having them on the table and in the smoke house, that's a problem for getting through the winter,” said Jason Hale, spokesperson for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. While the predictions are disappointing, knowing ahead of time that fishing may be curtailed helps people deal with it, he said.

Because chum and kings often run together, the conservation measures designed to protect kings also block access to the chums, as there is generally no way to prevent kings from diving into the nets intended for their sister salmon.

That is, unless you live in Kaltag, the one community that may have unlocked a way to fish the entire run.

While other communities along the length of the river will be barred from commercial fishing while the kings swim upstream, fisherman in Kaltag, after pleading with Gov. Sean Parnell for relief, have gotten the go-ahead to fish.

Yukon River Gold aims high

About 200 people live in the small, riverside village of Kaltag, far beyond Alaska's road system. Most residents live off of the land, hunting and fishing to survive. In the 1990s, commercial fishing for Yukon chums provided a reliable source of income. But the when the chum fishery crashed, so did commercial fishing.

Believing the fish would return and recognizing the need for economic hope in a community with limited options, the state of Alaska and the city of Kaltag built a small, $1.3 million processing plant in 2001.

Until 2007, it sat idle with no investor, no seafood company to run it.

Eventually, Yukon River Gold, LLC, came along. It promised the city it would only hire locals and says it has kept its promise. But until two months ago, the outlook for the company's Kaltag venture was bleak. It's only been able to operate three of the last five years, and failed to make a profit yet. Unless something changed, it would be forced to close its doors and pull out.

Perhaps its biggest problem has been the short fishing window for Kaltag as fishery managers shut the season to protect king runs. Could a 20-day season make any financial sense? For the small operation to survive in one of the nation's poorest and most-isolated places, it would need to double the days it operated.

“The fencing off of a river full of salmon may in fact doom the very existence of these villages, which have existed for centuries, dependent upon this single resource,” Yukon Gold co-owner Doug Karlberg wrote to Gov. Sean Parnell in Nov., when he started making the case for an innovative solution in a letter he sent to Governor Sean Parnell.

“I never thought it possible that in the richest state, in the richest nation, the poorest citizens in our nation are having to beg for access to the only abundant local resources available for economic survival. Almost every other group in the state has access to harvest these resources except the local villages lining the river where these salmon return to spawn; all to save a specific Chinook salmon, which we do catch but return to the river alive unharmed and do not kill.

“To watch their economy swim upstream when they wouldn't hurt the fish they're trying to save . . . doesn't make sense,” he later explained.

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Kaltag, about 75 miles west of Galena, is far enough upriver that by the time kings and chum reach town, they are swimming on separate courses. Kings hug the east bank, chum the west. This commuter pattern limits how many kings are incidentally caught. But so does the technique used in Kaltag, which unlike most of the rest of the river does not rely on nets.

Fish wheel solution

“We harvest fish with fish wheels, not with nets,” Karlberg said during an interview from Seattle, preparing to make his way back to Kaltag for the upcoming season.

Nevertheless, in recent years 60 percent of the chum run had passed by the time Kaltag's fishwheels were allowed to start moving. Something had to change or the plant would be shuttered. “We needed to do something innovative to be able to harvest one species and save another,” Karlberg said.

One benefit of fish wheels is the ability to immediately return unwanted fish to the river. A Canadian study in the early 1990's had already shown that kings caught in fish wheels and returned had a high survival rate. With bycatch numbers king salmon by high sea trawlers in the tens of thousands of fish, why not give the neediest users some leeway? What's more, unlike the large fishing boats in the open ocean, kings incidentally caught in Kaltag could be returned to the Yukon alive and well, Karlberg argued.

In April, Karlberg's efforts paid off. Kaltag received permission to fish while the early runs of kings were in the river on two conditions. The wheels must be staffed at all times with lookouts – people watching for and ready to act when a wayward king gets caught. And they must be adapted with a slide to help the kings successfully navigate their way back into the water unharmed.

Yukon Gold's main product is chum caviar – mature eggs harvested from fish that are getting close to their spawning grounds. But it also sells flash frozen carcasses and has recently begun partnering with a high school in nearby Galena. With filets from Kaltag, students in Galena's culinary program will be able to prepare fish for meals, and guts and intestine will aid the composting process they are also studying.

Investing in local youth is a mark of pride for the struggling start-up. More than half of its employees are under the age of 18, some as young as 14. Work at the processing plant for many young people will be the first paying job they've ever had. The community's elders have also been energized, tapped to pass on their fish wheel know-how to younger hands, while about a dozen fisherman will be able to make money selling their fish.

“It is really hard to restart a fishery,” Kalberg said. “Finally, after a long time, the state has come to try to help these communities get an economy back. If we get our job done this year we will probably pump about 250,000 dollars into the community – probably more.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com