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Yukon River king salmon harvest falling short again

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Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:45 am | Updated: 1:04 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — It doesn’t appear enough Yukon River king salmon will reach Canada to fulfill Alaska’s obligation as part of an international treaty.

As of Monday, an estimated 15,400 kings had passed a sonar counter near Eagle, about 20 miles from the border, and fisheries managers were projecting a border passage of 37,500 kings. The treaty’s minimum border passage goal is 42,500 kings.

But Steve Smith with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Whitehorse said the projection of 37,500 kings across the border “might be optimistic.”

“We expect it to be somewhat less than that,” he said.

The shortage of kings has subsistence fishermen on the middle and upper Yukon River pleading with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to hold off on any commercial fishing for fall chum salmon in the lower river so they can supplement deficient king catches with fall chums and coho salmon that are just beginning to enter the river.

“There’s people in Tanana that have not met their subsistence needs,” Faith Peters in Tanana said Tuesday during a Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association teleconference with the Department of Fish and Game. “We need to be thinking about what people here really need, and that’s food for the winter.”

The department is projecting a fall chum run of 600,000 fish, which would be enough to meet subsistence, personal-use and escapement needs, as well as support a limited commercial harvest, said fall chum manager Jeff Estensen.

The department’s minimum escapement goal is 300,000 fall chums and another 200,000 are allotted for subsistence and personal use fishermen, according to the fall chum management plan.

As of Tuesday, an estimated 99,430 fall chums had passed a sonar counter at Pilot Station, about 120 miles upstream of the mouth of the Yukon. Estensen said the department will not make any kind of decision regarding commercial fishing for fall chums until at least Aug. 8, which marks the historical midpoint of the run.

“At this time we are taking a very conservative approach to things,” Estensen said. “As we get a better idea of what our surplus will be like then we’ll make any decisions on commercial fishing.”

The department won’t open any commercial fishing for fall chums “unless we’re pretty darn certain we’re going to go over 500,000 fish for the total run,” said Dan Bergstrom, regional management supervisor for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

But upriver fishermen don’t want the department to open any commercial fishing for fall chums on the lower river until they meet their subsistence needs.

Gerald Nicholia in Tanana said he caught only one king salmon this season and needs to catch fall chums to make up for the lack of kings.

“I’m really relying on that to make it through the winter,” he said.

James Roberts, natural resources manager for the Tanana Tribal Council, said people only harvested about 20 percent of their subsistence needs with kings.

“We want to make it up with silver salmon, if possible,” Roberts said. “What we’re afraid is (the Department of Fish and Game) will open up commercial fishing on the lower end and impose restrictions on us in the upper end, where we’re trying to meet out needs.”

The Tanana Tribal Council requested a seven-day-a-week subsistence opening during Tuesday’s teleconference. The Department of Fish and Game will try to accommodate that request, Bergstrom said.

Most fishermen in the lower river have caught enough fish for subsistence and were able to harvest and sell almost 200,000 summer chums and nearly 10,000 kings during several commercial openings for summer chums.

Dorothy Schockley, a legislative aide for Sen. Albert Kookesh of Angoon, whose district includes villages on the upper Yukon River, said the department needs to focus on making sure fishermen on the middle and upper Yukon get enough fish to eat before fishermen on the lower river can catch and sell more fish.

“We need to make some changes to ensure villages in the middle and upper Yukon River get what they need,” she said during Tuesday’s teleconference.

Fishermen on the upper river have been plagued by high water and debris the past two weeks as a result of heavy rain, forcing them to pull their nets and fish wheels out of the water or risk losing them.

“What wheels that didn’t get pulled in are all filled up with drift,” said Albert Carroll in Circle, 150 miles north of Fairbanks at the end of the Steese Highway.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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