Yukon kings are on the rebound
Yukon River chinook stocks are on the upswing, according to a season summary, though not everybody is fishing for the surplus.
Holly Carroll, the area management biologist for the Yukon River section of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the painful restrictions on subsistence harvests have paid off. “We wouldn’t have made escapement goals at all if we hadn’t restricted harvest,” Carroll said. “We have to restrict the harvest just to meet the bare minimum for sustaining the run. The restrictions in the subsistence fishery have helped to build the numbers back up.”
With 176,895 fish past the sonar counter at Pilot Station, the 2016 chinook run has nosed back up to the most recent 20-year average of 178,000.
Along with total run numbers, the amount of chinook into Canada is improving. However, First Nations communities and Canada fisheries managers have different ideas than Alaska, and much of the run sent over the border went unharvested.
A major goal of ADFG Yukon River management aims to send between 42,500 and 55,000 chinook salmon over the Canadian border at Eagle as per the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
The Eagle passage numbers are not yet final, but preliminary counts say at least 72,300 salmon have crossed the border, which meets the additional 20 percent to 26 percent of the total allowable Yukon catch the treaty requires for the Canadian harvest.
Canadian fish comprised greater than average percentage of the overall run than ADFG normally sees in even years. For the latest-returning salmon, measured June 26 to July 6, the percentage of Canadian fish was the highest since ADFG began measuring in 2005.
Canadians fish less
There is a tension between Canadian management and Alaska management that plays into the restrictions for subsistence users on the Yukon River.
“There’s a little bit of a different take between the two different managements and what that looks like,” said Carroll.
The Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO, has extra steps in chinook management that include First Nations communities on the Yukon River. Like Alaska, Canada’s Natives live under a lands claim agreement similar to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The Canadian land act established the Yukon Salmon subcommittee which takes input from First Nations communities and the public at large and makes a recommendation to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.
According to Mary Ellen Jarvis, Resource Manager of Treaties and Fisheries for DFO, the minister typically follows the salmon subcommittee’s recommendation.
Individual First Nations governments may formulate and implement and monitor individual harvest plans in their own communities as long as they’re meeting the conservation objectives outlined in the plan.
In recent years and in 2016, the Canadian subcommittee has wanted to keep sex ratio into consideration, a factor ADFG notes in its studies but doesn’t use in management.
“This year, we did see a lower than normal sex ratio coming across the border at Eagle, hence we maintained a precautionary approach despite having what was considered a better than expected border escapement,” said Jarvis. “Not only the salmon subcommittee but the communities themselves are quite aware of and quite concerned about it.
“If we have a weaker than expected return of females or a really skewed age structure in the run, that is always a bit of flag for us to say perhaps we should not get too excited just about the numbers.”
So although the border passage numbers were better than recent years, DFO cancelled all commercial, recreational and domestic chinook fisheries due to the lower female abundance.
The fishing communities themselves acted similarly.
Though they had the option to harvest their full subsistence amount, Yukon River First Nations opted to keep a heavily restricted subsistence fishery in 2016. Jarvis said only 2,200 salmon were caught throughout the season.
Alaska’s subsistence communities have been hurting for the last decade, but things appear to be improving for the Yukon chinook run.
Between 2004 and 2008, the Yukon River had plenty of kings and little to no subsistence restrictions. During those years, the average river-wide subsistence harvest was 51,600 fish.
When chinook stocks started crashing, management tightened.
In 2015, Yukon villagers harvest 7,600 Chinook salmon, 85 percent less than the average during unrestricted years.
Because there were more salmon than expected this year, Carroll said she hopes to see at least double the harvest in 2016, when the final numbers are available in December.
Chinook on the river have rebounded somewhat relative to the lowest return years in 2012 and 2013.
In 2016, the chinook salmon escapement counts at the Pilot Station sonar counter surpassed the preseason outlook and the returns from the previous half decade. By Aug. 31, the sonar counted 176,895 fish, which is 30,000 more than last year and more than the preseason forecast of 130,000 to 175,000 fish.
This number matches the most recent historical average of 178,300, which accounts for the years between 1995 and 2014.
The river came to life early in 2016, matching observations around the state of off-timing for salmon of several species.
The first chum salmon arrived two weeks earlier than average, the first subsistence chinook was caught two weeks earlier than average, and the chinook run itself peaked two days later than average.
The timing coincides with changing environmental conditions.
“Ice break-up at the mouth of the Yukon River (near Alakanuk) occurred on May 3, which was more than two weeks earlier than the average break up date of May 22 (based on the years 1995–2015).”
The summer chum salmon run — the river’s commercial crop — came in above average and early.
An estimated 1.9 million summer chum salmon passed the Pilot Station by the season’s end, more than the historical median of 1.7 million fish. ADFG said each pulse of the chum run matched the normal pattern for an early run timing.
Forecasts for pink salmon were off, but ADFG’s Yukon River chinook forecast predicted accurately for the year.
For commercial fisheries on the Yukon River, the season was a success.
The Lower Yukon River, which is has the largest commercial fishery, netted $1.9 million in dockside pay for chum salmon and $54,800 from a new pink salmon fishery.
Per person, fishermen made $4,502 apiece, nearly twice last year.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].