Poor Chinook (king) salmon returns to several major Alaska rivers have resulted in closures and other conservation measures that have affected subsistence, sport, and commercial uses. The Chinook salmon runs on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers were projected to be poor to below average pre-season. The Yukon River Chinook salmon outlook was poor to below average, with the run size projected to be from 109,000 to 146,000, well below the average total of 200,000 fish since 1997.
The Chinook salmon outlook for the Kuskokwim River was for a run below the average total of 260,000 fish. Early indications are that, unless the run is exceptionally late, it may be the worst since records have been kept.
Currently test fisheries are seeing Chinook at approximately 25% of the numbers encountered at this point in 2010, which was the worst return on record. In anticipation of this, conservative management strategies for Yukon and Kuskokwim River Chinook salmon were jointly developed by Federal and State managers with stakeholders throughout both watersheds prior to the 2012 season. Extensive outreach efforts occurred throughout the winter and spring regarding the projected poor runs.
Early indications are that the Chinook runs are coming in at the low end, and possibly below the low end, of the projected range for the Yukon, and well below the projection for the Kuskokwim. As a result, state and federal subsistence openings have been substantially reduced, and recently closed, on the Yukon River; and the Kuskokwim has been completely closed to all directed subsistence salmon fishing.
Summer chum salmon on the Yukon are also returning later and in below average numbers, but the run has seemed to be building in recent days and there is still potential for it to develop into an above average return.
Federal and State managers have restricted subsistence fishing to nets with a mesh size of no greater than six inches in an attempt to decrease the incidental catch of Chinooks by those fishing for chums.
In an effort to provide some subsistence opportunity, a short- three day opening with restricted gear (6” mesh or less) directed at sockeye and chum salmon began at 12:01 AM on 6/22/2012 in the lower Kuskokwim River, and will roll up the river over the course of next week. The mesh size restriction was put into place to reduce the harvest of incidentally caught king salmon. On the lower Yukon River, the subsistence harvest closed on 6/20/2012, and the next period was cancelled. The state will notify fishermen by 6/24/2012 when the next harvest period will open.
Any decision to limit subsistence harvest is not made lightly, as the Service understands the cultural, economic, and nutritional significance of Chinook salmon to individuals and communities up and down these rivers. In the face of potentially historically low runs, however, we all have to look to the future, and make the hard choices today that will, we hope, enable our grandchildren to enjoy healthier king salmon runs and continue the traditions that enrich their lives.
Logo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service