Catch-and-release salmon fishing on the Yukon River is being pitched to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, only this time there's a big twist.
Where normally catch-and-release is thought of as a sport-fishing technique to allow fishing as a cultural pursuit in times when fish are few in number, what is being proposed on the Yukon is catch-and-release in a commercial fishery. The idea is not new. It has been pioneered on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest where wild king salmon -- or Chinook as they are more often called there -- are in short supply.
Three years ago, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Colville Confederated Tribes, which hold treaty fishing rights on the Columbia, began experimenting with the use of purse seines to corral schools of salmon. Wild fish were removed unharmed from the seines , while hatchery fish were harvested.
The tribe calls this "the friendliest catch ." The technique is now being expanded into other mixed-stock, commercial fisheries on the Columbia, both tribal and non-tribal.
And the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association thinks the technique is the answer to a troubling bycatch problem on the Yukon.
Yukon closures hit hard
Once famous for its large runs of king salmon, the Yukon has seen those runs shrink drastically even as chum salmon have proliferated. The problem for fishermen is that the chums and kings swim upriver together, and because the favored, traditional fishing technique -- a gill-snagging gillnet -- indiscriminately catch both species of salmon, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has often in recent years been forced to severely restrict or shut down fishing.
Because of fishing restrictions to protect kings, Gene Sandone, a former state fisheries biologist now working with the Yukon Association, estimates fishermen in the lower river communities of Alakanuk, Emmonak, Grayling, Kotlik, Nunam Iqua and Mountain Village were last year forced to watch $5 million worth of fish swim past them.
"It's very grim," he said. "This area, the Wade-Hampton Census District, is the poorest place in the nation."
An area of far Western Alaska larger than the state of Maryland, the Wade-Hampton  is home to less than 8,000 people, more than 90 percent of them Alaska Native, predominantly Yup'ik. About a third live at or below the official poverty level. The median household income is a meager $11,380 a year in a place where the price of home heating fuel is nearing $10 a gallon.
Villagers this time of year can find themselves facing tough choices between spending what cash they have on food, heating oil to stay warm, or snowmachine gas to enable them to collect driftwood from along the Yukon to heat their homes.
And despite the time, energy and risk of the latter , firewood often offers the best economic option for staying warm and fed. For people living in these sorts of drastic economic situations to watch valuable fish that could be caught swim past each summer is heartbreaking.
Location, location, location
The state Board of Fish did try to help Yukon communities out by last year allowing the use of king-friendly dipnets and beach seines to fish the river.
"Everyone was touting the dipnets," Sandone said, "and some people did really well where they had good sites."
A dipnet is basically a landing net with a long handle. It is an ancient technique for catching salmon that dates back to Alaska prehistory. Dipnetting is most common now in the state's personal-use fisheries to catch salmon for home use, but commercial dipnetting did yield about half of the 400,000 chums caught in the lower Yukon last year.
That catch represented about a quarter of the estimated allowable harvest of 1.6 million.
"It prevented a disaster," Sandone said. But no more than that. More than a million harvestable salmon went upstream.
Sandone calculated the dipnet exploitation rate on the returning chum at 9 percent. The gillnet fishery the dipnets replaced used to catch about 40 percent. As for the beach seines, they were a good idea gone bust. Fishermen discovered they lacked sites where the nets worked.
"We believe that there is (still) a very large, commercially-available surplus of summer chum salmon being foregone because of king salmon conservation measures" the association said in an emergency petition submitted to the Fish Board earlier this month. "We believe that a larger portion of this surplus could be taken with the use of purse seines in the Lower Yukon area than current allowable, selective-harvest gear with little or no impact to the incidentally caught king salmon."
The association pretty much termed the beach-seine experiment a failure.
"Based on beach seine fishing during the fall of 2012, we had great expectations for the use of beach seines to selectively harvest relatively large numbers of summer chum salmon," it reported. "We did not anticipate that there would be virtually no sites where a beach seine could be legally set.... Few, if any, beach seine sites are usually available during the summer season because of normal, seasonally high, river-water levels," the association reported. "We believe that this situation will be a common occurrence in the future."
Purse seines fare better
Sandone said he did get to experiment with a purse-seine test fishery in the river for a time last summer and it seemed to work pretty smoothly.
Where normally large craft with booms, pulleys and winches are needed to pull seine nets, Yukon fishermen were able to use small boats and muscle power to corral, trap and then handle fish with a smaller drifting seine.
"We used two regular, 25-foot fishing boats," Sandone said. One floated downriver as the other looped the cork line of a monofilament net around a school of fish. A standard lead-line held the net down in the water.
Once a group of fish were encircled, fishermen hand-pulled a rope from the rings on the bottom of the net to close. Then it was just a matter of tightening the circle to squeeze the fish into a manageable area.
With the fish so contained, the kings were dipped out with a rubberized net and released unharmed. The chums were dipped out and killed.
"It is a lot of work," Sandone admitted, "but these fishermen are ingenious ... We were catching quite a few fish."
Or at least they were until a state biologist told them monofilament purse seines cannot legally be used in Alaska. That forced Sandone's experiment back to a heavy net with nylon threads. It was almost too heavy to pull. The fishermen are asking the board to allow the monofilament nets on the Yukon along with legalizing purse seines.
Sandone said he saw no fish killed when his group was using a monofilament seine, and he doesn't expect to see any killed. He said in-river purse seining seems a benign as dipnetting, which also allows for the easy release of kings.
The only problem anyone saw with dead kings last summer, Sandone added, was caused by what Sandone called a "loophole" in the state law for the dipnet and beach-seine fisheries.
The state allowed fishermen to keep any kings that accidentally died in their nets while being caught. A few people took advantage and claimed fish died.
"There is always concern for letting a dead fish go," Sandone said, but he added that from what he saw on-river it is hard for him to believe a fish could actually die in a dipnet or seine. An injury is a possibility, he said, though remote. But it may be that the state has to require the release of all kings, even those possibly injured, to prevent people from exploiting a loophole in the law.
He firmly believes the chum catch on the lower Yukon could be quadrupled with no additional harm to the kings.
"This could revolutionize the fishery,” he said, "but Fish and Game is not jumping on the bandwagon."
With Yukon king runs looking like they could be worse in 2014 than they were in 2013, and with Canadian officials upping the pressure to get their kings safely through Alaska fisheries and back to spawning grounds in the Yukon Territory, the safest and easiest thing for state fisheries biologists to do would be to shut early-season Yukon fishing down to nothing, or almost nothing.
Sandone and the fishermen with whom he is working think they have a better idea. It remains to be seen whether the state Board of Fisheries, the ultimate arbiter in these affairs, will give them a shot at employing it.
The petition to allow seining is on the board's agenda for March.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com