Yukon fisheries face continued struggle with record low populations
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In 2022 the Yukon River salmon fisheries faced a devastatingly low run size causing losses in economic returns and subsistence food security. 2023 is looking to be similar or worse with another record low run size.
For years, the Yukon River salmon fisheries have faced hardship as salmon runs have been increasingly low. In recent years, those runs have been so scant that disasters were declared. 2023 has proven to be no better than recent years past.
As salmon runs in the Yukon River have seen a decrease in size, the consequences have included lost harvest opportunities, lost traditions and nutritional insecurity. The dwindling run sizes have become so alarming that fishery disasters were declared in 2022.
2023 has so far shown run size trends that are very similar to 2022, with chinook salmon facing the biggest decline. “Last year was the lowest that we had counted,” said Deena Jallen, the Yukon summer season manager with the Dept. of Fish and Game. While the chinook runs in 2022 came in lower at the start of the run, the number of fish between the 2022 and 2023 runs is about the same.
While chinook salmon are generally the higher value fish, they are only catch and release this year on the Yukon River. The most common salmon in the area is the chum salmon. While the run for chum salmon is seeing a slight improvement this year, the year to year populations are variable and the population of chum in the Yukon has been low in recent years as well.
Some are blaming ocean climate conditions for the poor return populations. “Folks are really looking at temperature and diet so, there’s a lot of studies looking at when and where salmon are out in the ocean as juveniles,” said Jallen. There are also studies looking at the health of the fish that do return to the river. These studies are measuring fat content and checking for disease among other potential issues. One disease in particular being Ichthyophonus, which produces pus filled sores on the internal organs and muscles of the salmon.
With no answers or solutions yet attained, plus the continuing decline in run sizes, commercial fishing for chum has been halted, along with the catch and release only status for chinook salmon. Fishing has also been limited to select gear types as well. A guide to those limitations can be found in the latest update on Yukon River salmon.
The loss of commercial fishing has a huge impact on the communities that rely on the operations to provide income for their families, “and so that’s a big economic impact to the communities that would normally be fishing for summer chum salmon,” said Jallen. But, the impact is bigger than just finances. “It’s empty freezers, it’s empty smokehouses, it’s a tremendous loss of food and then also a tremendous loss of cultural opportunities to connect with the land and connect with the resource and pass on traditions,” Jallen said.
While the runs have been low and continue to decline causing struggle, chum salmon is expected to meet the lower end of the escapement goal this year, allowing for some level of harvest.
Despite the positive development, communities along the Yukon river continue to fall short of their needs. Some have responded to the crises by donating salmon and other fish caught elsewhere in Alaska, but it’s not a one for one replacement. “The donation efforts are, they’re important and they’re appreciated but it just doesn’t fully replace just the amount of food that’s lost and doesn’t, it absolutely does not replace the traditions that are impacted by these low fishing years,” Jallen said.
As of July 11, the Dept. of Fish and Game reported the Yukon River chum salmon run for the summer of 2023, had reached the lower end drainage-wide escapement goal. The escapement goal for the summer run is set between 500,000 to 1.2 million chum salmon. This does not mean that 500,000 salmon have avoided harvest, but rather that fish counts for chum salmon have surpassed a total of 500,000. Based on current data, the run count is comparable to 2020 when chum salmon reached lower end escapement goals around the same time. This is a marked improvement over the same time last year when the run count was around or below 400,000 chums.
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