Yukon, Kuskokwim king rules will remain cautious in ‘16

Along the states most heavily used subsistence waterways, Alaska’s lack of chinook salmon complicates food access in 2016.

Despite an upward looking forecast for chinook on the Kuskokwim River, managers are still gun shy from the 2010 drop in king salmon recruitment. One average forecast, they say, does not merit a move to looser management.

The 2016 Kuskokwim River king salmon forecast is for a range of 125,000 to 219,000 fish. The drainage-wide Chinook salmon escapement goal is 65,000 to 120,000. Average subsistence Chinook salmon harvest is 84,000. If the run comes back within the forecast range, then there may be enough chinook salmon to provide for escapement and subsistence needs.

Managers are still uncertain how many kings actually came upriver in 2015. Unlike many other widely used Alaska waterways, the Kuskokwim River does not yet have a functional Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar system to count returns.

Other less accurate methods prevail, and even these disagree with each other over the amount of kings returning to the system in 2015.

Weir counts and aerial surveys from a dozen Kuskokwim tributaries set a range of between 129,000 to 229,000 chinook returning to the river, or 172,000 as the median.

Mark recapture studies say differently. They estimate 124,000 kings came up the river. Between the two, managers say, it pays to keep vigilant.

“Given the uncertainty in the estimate of the 2015 run size, the large forecast range of the 2016 run, and consecutive years of low chinook salmon runs to the Kuskokwim River, a precautionary management strategy remains warranted,” according to the forecast.

Managers say they will continue considering several of the tools used in the past several years to conserve chinook salmon, including early season chinook salmon subsistence fishery closure, tributary closures, restrictions on gillnet mesh size and length, live release of chinook salmon from fishing gear, time and area restrictions, and subsistence hook and line bag and possession limits.

These restrictions could produce much the same season in 2016 as in 2015: a poor one.

Management during low abundance of kings hobbled the 2015 Kuskokwim season.

The Kuskokwim River produced some surplus chinook for subsistence, but nowhere near the official amount needed for subsistence, or ANS. The ANS, a number set by the Board of Fisheries, is 67,200 to 109,800, and hasn’t been met in five years. The average subsistence harvest is 84,000.

ADFG estimates the Kuskokwim River chinook salmon subsistence harvest in 2015 was between 17,000 and 25,000.

Native communities along the river continue to appeal to the federal government to manage the run.

The Akiak Native Community has asked Federal Subsistence Board to close off all salmon harvest in the Kuskokwim River’s federal waters in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to anyone but federally qualified subsistence users.

In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed all chinook fishing opportunities, including federally-qualified subsistence, in waters within and adjacent to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and put gear and time restrictions for all other salmon to protect the chinook run.

Yukon River

ADFG hasn’t released Yukon River forecasts yet, but management plans from the area’s Board of Fisheries meeting aided commercial fisheries while still protecting kings. 

During the Alaska Board of Fisheries Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting in January, the board adopted several restrictions for the Yukon, but also opened new opportunities for commercial users.

To provide more opportunity at the behest of Kwik’pak Fisheries, the board opened up a commercial pink salmon fishery for the lower Yukon River — provided there are enough chum and pink salmon forecasted to satisfy subsistence demands.

The board also allowed for beach seines for the commercial chum harvest, subject to chinook-sensitive mesh size and depth restrictions.

Each fishery and gear type has strict orders to closely watch for caught kings and live release them back into the river. This now applies to subsistence fish wheels for the first time.

The Yukon River has a substantially greater commercial fishing industry than the Kuskokwim, and subsistence management has to strike a balance between the two user groups.

Long before king salmon declines materialized starting around 2010, the Yukon River saw a precipitous decline in king salmon abundance beginning at the turn of the century that has led to restrictive management measures ever since and resulted in three federal disaster declarations for poor returns.

These measures appear to be working, or at least not making things worse.

In 2015, the Yukon River restrictions coincided with one of the best escapements in years. At the Eagle sonar station near the Canadian border, ADFG counted 83,372 chinook salmon, 20,000 more than 2014 and 50,000 more than the Canadian escapements in 2013 and 2012.

The trick for ADFG will be to continue the evidently successful king restrictions while supporting commercial fishing, one of the region’s only employers.

The 2015 Yukon River commercial harvest — only considering chum, the river’s main commercial crop — netted $1.3 million, up from the 2005-2014 summer chum value average of $832,055.

Subsistence needs for chum were met, but at the expense of chinook subsistence harvest.

Chum salmon are the Yukon River’s only commercial species, as ADFG discontinued the commercial chinook fishery in 2011 in response to poor returns. Prices were down in 2015, and the upper river’s only processor shut down. The lower Yukon will continue to hold processing capability for its new pink fishery.

A fire took much of Kwik-Pak’s office and housing in 2015, but general manager Jack Schultheis said the company won’t lose a step before the 2016 season. None of the processing capability was affected.

“We did not lose any production facilities,” said Schultheis. “We’re not going to miss anything.”

In the meantime, Schultheis said Lynden Transport is shipping a barge with new housing and office materials to the lower Yukon to be ready for the season.

Updated: 
05/04/2016 - 8:10pm