Rural Alaska

Yukon River fishermen get first chance to sell kings since 2011

BETHEL — For the first time since 2011, some Yukon River chinook may end up as specials in high-end restaurants.

State managers are allowing Yukon area fishermen to sell any king salmon they catch during a 12-hour commercial fishing opening that started Monday afternoon. The price at the dock — $5.50 — is as healthy as this year's king run.

The Monday opening is to target fall chum salmon, not king salmon. But the king catch offers an opportunity for extra money for the biggest Alaska Native fleet of fishermen in the state. The fishermen are mainly locals who fish from aluminum skiffs.

The fish plant in Emmonak is offering $5.50 a pound for king salmon, compared to 60 cents for chum and $1 for silvers, said Doug Donegan, acting manager of Kwikpak Fisheries, which runs the plant near the river mouth for the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.

Most king or chinook salmon already have passed by the fishing grounds by now, so the commercial chum opening isn't expected to hurt the king run, said Jeff Estensen, state management biologist for the Yukon area.

Estensen, who was in Bethel Monday afternoon catching a fight to Emmonak, described the situation as "probably the best king run we've had in a number of years."

In recent years, including this one, Yukon fishermen targeting chum early in the season have been restricted to dipnets and other gear that allows king salmon to be released alive. Once more efficient gillnets are allowed, they can only keep king salmon for subsistence. That is changing.

The state now is projecting a bigger-than-expected king run of between 228,000 and 287,000, counting those that make it all the way to Canada. It would be the biggest return of Yukon king salmon since 2005, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

The Yukon and its tributaries used to produce 300,000 kings a year on average. A decline began in 1998.

It's also a good year for Yukon chum, prized in their own right. Yukon salmon tend to be rich and buttery tasting because of their long migration path.

Kwikpak Fisheries markets chum, for instance, as wild Yukon River salmon or sometimes "keta," after the scientific name for chum.

Kings are especially desired.

"It's a real premium fish," Donegan said. "Yukon king is wildly regarded as probably the best salmon … and it has not been on the commercial market for years." The king salmon will be shipped out fresh, he said.

In 2011, the last time Yukon fishermen could sell king salmon, a total of 82 chinook — 985 pounds — were sold in the lower Yukon, according to Fish and Game.