Yukon fisherman proposes ‘radical' idea

Jill Burke

With this year's commercial fishing season ending even worse than last year's, Yupik fisherman Nick Tucker Sr. is proposing what he calls a "radical" decision this fall on the Yukon River. He wants the state to allow commercial fishing for the fall run of silver salmon, even if it comes at the expense of subsistence fisherman upstream.

Fish politics are messy. It's where high emotions, people's livelihoods, traditional ways, state laws, international treaties, and species preservation all intersect. On the Yukon, fishermen are making drastically less money than in years past, fish aren't returning as expected, and keeping track of how many fish are heading upstream, which affects how much fishing can take place, is an imprecise but essential undertaking.

One of the challenges is managing the different kinds of fish that travel together in the river. Right now, a severely low chum salmon run is heading into the Yukon alongside a strong run of silvers, and restrictions to help ensure enough chum make it to spawning grounds are preventing fishermen from taking advantage of the abundant silvers. The chum shortage comes on the heels of two years of bans on fishing for king salmon, which is much higher in value and represents the bulk of the fishery's earning power.

Tucker, a 64-year-old fisherman from the lower Yukon village of Emmonak, emailed local leaders, state legislators and fisheries managers this week, saying he'd like to see the ban lifted on commercial fishing for silver salmon. That would allow fishermen to attempt to make up for the poor chum season, he says.

"I think this is my worst year of fishing since 1978, since I started commercial fishing," Tucker said in an interview this week. The village elder has become increasingly outspoken about the plight of families who are trying to make ends meet despite harsh winters, few jobs, and high food and fuel costs. He worries the community is headed for a humanitarian crisis this winter, and says people desperately need any opportunity to make even just a few hundred more dollars.

Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik'Pak fisheries, the processing plant that serves the region's six Yupik villages, sees the financial struggles in the stream of faces that come through his office asking for money to fill gas tanks and feed children. "Down here it is so grim," he said, adding that people in the region are living on four percent of what they were making 10 years ago.

Schultheis says this summer the average take-home pay for fishermen was $1,600 -- barely enough to cover the cost of gas and gear. For most residents on the lower Yukon, seasonal fishing is the only cash-paying job available for the entire year.

The situation is bad enough that the state is seeking a federal fisheries disaster declaration based on two years in a row of depleted king salmon runs. Still, it now appears the king run this summer may have been stronger than initially thought, enough so that in hindsight, Schultheis thinks more fishing should have been allowed, instead of being significantly curtailed. Kings are the high-value, highly-prized catch of the river. And the difference, he said, is a missed opportunity to bring in hundreds of thousands dollars more, if not millions, to the community.

John Linderman, a regional supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says focusing on the smaller numbers of fish is "missing the bigger picture." From his perspective the season was largely a success, as getting enough fish across the Canadian border "is seen as quite an accomplishment."

Linderman also emphasizes that increased restrictions on fishing "are not taken lightly," but adds economics do not override the state's obligation to ensure enough fish make it to the spawning grounds.

Adding to this year's frustrations, the region has been hit with yet another fishing misfortune: The fall run of chum salmon is shaping up to be the lowest on record, resulting in no commercial fishing since Aug. 5 and reduced opportunities for subsistence fishermen.

Meanwhile, silver salmon are showing up in force, leaving fishermen who still need money to fund their fall subsistence hunting, purchase fuel and prepare for winter able to do little more than watch the fish swim by their villages.

"What does it take to have everyone see that our Lower Yukon commercial fishing is intertwined with our subsistence way of life?" Tucker asked in an email to state and local leaders and fisheries managers.

Tucker said he wants the state to go against its own guidelines and allow a fall commercial fishing season for silvers to give families one last economic boost for the year.

"We have people desperate to go out moose hunting, whale and seal hunting, geese and other species of fish," he said. "You could let them go out and get these by giving them the opportunity to get gas, motor oil, ammunition, repair parts and every single thing that is necessary to prepare much better for this winter."

Tucker called it a "crazy" suggestion, but said adaptation is necessary in times of strife.

He's also aware that a commercial fishery for silvers on the lower river could hurt subsistence chum fishing upstream But that, he said, "isn't our doing."

Tucker attributes this year's low chum run to an unusually strong run four years ago. He said he believes fishery managers allowed too many chum to hit the spawning grounds in 2005, clogging streams and causing die-offs. Most of the fish returning this year were hatched in 2005. Biologists confirm the run that year was huge, but say they don't know why the fish didn't return as planned. Regardless, part of Tucker's pitch to fish the silver run is to save it from a similar fate.

Tucker's "crazy" idea may not get far.

Fish and game biologist Fred Bue, who manages the fall chum run, says this year's run is the worst on record. Regulations require 525,000 chum salmon to be in the river before commercial fishing for silvers is allowed. So far, less than half have come through.

Bue said it's unlikely the margin will shrink much, making a commercial opening a long shot. "If it wasn't such a wide spread, we might consider it," he said, but "it's not looking good."

Contact Jill Burke at jill@alaskadispatch.com.