For the second year running, Yukon River chinook salmon seem to be climbing out of an abundance pit.
The river is home to a bulk of Alaska’s subsistence communities that suffered from a statewide decline in king salmon, the staple subsistence harvest, since the early 2000s. Historically, the river sees an average return of 300,000 fish, but that hasn’t been seen since 1997. The most recent five-year average is less than half at 126,000 king salmon.
Though subsistence users are still restricted to protect kings, 2016 saw good news on the Yukon in terms of commercial chum salmon fishing harvest and king salmon escapement over the Canadian border.
At the Eagle sonar station on the border, ADFG counted 71,000 fish by Aug. 10, comfortably more than the 42,500 to 50,000 escapement goal Holly Caroll shoots for.
Caroll is the summer management biologist for the Yukon River. She said managing over the escapement goal can look like unnecessary restrictions for subsistence users.
However, she said, people forget that the Canadians want to harvest king salmon as well. The escapement goal only aims for how many salmon will spawn on their birthing grounds, not for the entire amount of chinook to be used by the end of the run.
By treaty, Canada must have 23 percent to 26 percent of the total escapement goal to harvest on their own.
“It’s hard to manage that harvest,” said Caroll. “It’s kind of confusing. We’ll say the ‘harvest-sharing objective’ and people don’t know what that is. Even the total in-river run is confusing.”
Last year, Yukon villagers harvested only 7,000 kings for subsistence, according to ADFG survey estimates that take place after the season ends — far below the historical average ranging closer to 60,000 per year. In 2016, Caroll said she hoped to double that number by loosening subsistence restrictions. ADFG will not have those final survey estimates until December.
Caroll doesn’t measure success by the fish themselves, but instead by how many of the state’s most remote population gets to eat them.
“This is still not an awesome number,” she said. “Subsistence fishermen are still severely restricted. I’m not going to be happy till the run is large enough to stop restricting subsistence harvest. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
This year the commercial fishing season broke harvest records not seen since the 1980s, providing a welcome cushion for the cash-strapped region.
Jack Schultheis, the manager of the Yukon River’s only commercial fishing processor, Kwik’pak, said the commercial fleet harvested over 500,000 fish, a marked uptick from the typical 300,000 seen by the summer season’s close.
“All things considered, the best summer fishery this company ever had,” said Schultheis.
He did note that conservation measures for kings cut into the potential to harvest the 2.4 million chums, though he commended ADFG managers for opening every commercial opportunity possible once king salmon had cleared through the area.
“The foregone harvest was something over a million fish that was available,” Schultheis said. “Once the kings were through here, they did let us fish a lot. The run wasn’t compressed. People did well fishing.”
Schultheis believes what’s good for commercial fishermen is good for subsistence fishermen. Yukon commercial fishermen, he said, are invariably subsistence users as well and even adopt commercial methods for home use.
Subsistence users often ask Schultheis for ice; commercial fishermen ice and bleed their catch for better storage and marketability.
“Subsistence and commercial, it’s like the same thing to them,” he said. “It’s a big factor in their lives here. Everything gets better here when they’re allowed to commercial fish. It’s how they can afford to live here.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration co-produces a series of surveys with ADFG that predict two more years of improving chinook runs on the Yukon River.
The studies began in 2007, when NOAA could no longer secure its own funding and had to get grant money to continue. By 2010, NOAA decided ADFG might like juvenile salmon studies for management purposes, and the federal and state biologists have worked together ever since.
Katie Howard, an ADFG biologist, co-manages the juvenile Western Alaska salmon stock portion of the study alongside NOAA’s Jim Murphy.
The survey takes place in the Bering Sea north of Nunivak Island. Research teams use pelagic, or midwater, trawls to gather juvenile salmon in the top part of the water column where they usually swim. Among other research points, Howard and Murphy look for abundance estimates, indication of the size range, dietary habits, physical condition, genetics, and presence of diseases or parasites.
From the study, Howard knows the amount of marine juvenile salmon correlates closely with final escapement back to upriver spawning grounds.
“It’s a pretty stable relationship, at least for the years we have data,” Howard said.
Salmon spawn in the fall and hatch in the spring. They usually journey into saltwater between May and August. By the time Howard and Murphy see them in the Bering Sea in September, the numbers of juveniles is consistent with the final number of adults.
“What would have to explain these big changes in productivity on the Yukon is probably occurring before we see them in September,” said Howard. “After that point, it’s been pretty stable marine survival.”
The timeline could mean that the first few weeks of a juvenile salmon’s ocean life are critical. Changing weather conditions could be a culprit, she said.
“The first few weeks in the ocean is being really important to whether or not you’re going to have a strong cohort or weak cohort,” she said. “That’s the next step (in research). Some of the ideas that have been floating around are differences in timing, as fresh water systems are warming, fish are migrating earlier, and there could be a mismatch with wind conditions.”
ADFG’s funding for the Chinook Research Initiative begun under former Gov. Sean Parnell fell prey to declining state revenues, and many of the more robust research and management programs have been cut as well.
Howard said ADFG is considering similar juvenile studies for pink salmon in Prince William Sound, but juvenile studies for chinook are still lacking. She hopes the team can continue to develop more grant money to try the chinook surveys further south.
“There aren’t a lot of projects like this out there for Alaska,” Howard said. “We are working on funding to do something very similar that would get information on Kuskokwim and Nushagak, mostly Bristol Bay stocks. We’ve kind of fine-tuned things in the Northern Bering and figured out how we can make it work. We think we can just take it south and apply the same thing.”
• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.