FAIRBANKS — There will be no question whether subsistence fishermen on the Yukon River will be able to fish for early-run king salmon this summer.
In an attempt to rebuild what has been a dwindling chinook run in recent years, the Alaska Board of Fisheries adopted a new regulation last week that will prohibit king salmon fishing on the first big pulse of fish that hit the Yukon River in early June
The Department of Fish and Game has closed or restricted king salmon fishing on the first pulse of Yukon kings three of the past four years to get more fish to Canadian spawning grounds but those closures were by emergency order and based on the department’s preseason projection for the king run.
The new regulation adopted by the Board of Fisheries automatically closes king fishing on the first pulse of fish in Districts 1 and 2 of the lower Yukon but allows the department to lift the closure in districts farther up river in the event the run turns out to be stronger than projected. The department determines when the first pulse of kings hits the river based on test-net catches at the mouth of the river.
“They put into the Yukon River King Salmon Management Plan that there would be protection on the first pulse beginning in District 1 and 2,” said Eric Newland, area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. “If the run size is assessed to be strong enough to meet escapement and subsistence needs, that could be relaxed above those districts.”
Fishing on the first pulse of kings has been closed in all six river districts the past two years and last year added restrictions were placed on fishermen in District 6 to help get more fish across the border. Even with the restrictions, Alaska failed to get enough fish into Canada to satisfy objectives of Pacific Salmon Treaty for the second time in three years. Only a little more than 35,000 kings were counted by a sonar near the Canadian border. The treaty objective is a minimum of 42,500 kings.
The new regulation is “to provide for uncertainty in the preseason projection,” Newland said.
“In the past we made plans to protect the first pulse based on a preseason projection that warrants such action,” he said. “Now it’s going to happen regardless.”
Prohibiting fishing on the first pulse of kings is a hardship on fishermen but it’s about the only way the department has to rebuild the chinook run, Newland said.
“I don’t think anybody likes to hear they can’t go fishing but it is the strategy we’ve been using and it seems to pass fish,” he said.
The department will come out with its formal preseason projection for this year’s Yukon River king salmon run in March, Newland said, and it’s expected to be similar to last year’s, which was for a below average run.
Both the fish board and fishermen who attended the meeting in Anchorage appeared to be in agreement that steps need to be taken to rebuild the Yukon’s king run, said Fred Bue, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The whole Board of Fish seemed to be approaching this session with conservation in mind,” he said. “I think everybody was thinking about that, how to conserve the resource with the least impact to fishermen and still improve the run.
“People are recognizing there’s a fisheries concern here and everybody is trying to figure out ways to make it work,” he said.