FAIRBANKS — The Yukon River’s king salmon run is definitely late, and it remains to be seen if its size will be sub-par for the third year in a row.
King salmon started showing up in the Yukon River late last week, but state and federal managers said it’s too early to tell how this year’s chinook run will size up.
The first kings were caught in test nets at the mouth of the river on June 9, and the first kings were detected at a sonar counter at Pilot Station, about 120 miles upriver, on June 11.
At this point, it looks like the Yukon king run is about five days late, said Steve Hayes, Yukon area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“I’m hoping to have some data where we can make some kind of assessment this weekend,” he said.
The sonar count at Pilot Station through Wednesday was just 2,200 kings, which compares to a count of 5,122 at the same time last year. The first fish showed up at the sonar on June 9 last year.
The Yukon king run is usually split into three main pulses. Hayes was still trying to determine if the first pulse was hitting the river on Thursday. Test-net catch rates at the mouth of the river rose slightly Monday, dropped Tuesday and picked up again Wednesday.
But the increase in test-net catches doesn’t appear big enough to be a pulse, Hayes said. If it is, it’s a weak one, he said.
“I don’t know if that’s the first pulse, a weak first pulse or a bump of those early fish that were backed up out there because of ice,” Hayes said. “If that’s a pulse, it’s a little weaker than we’d like.”
Fred Bue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it doesn’t appear the first pulse of fish has hit the river yet.
“We’re not seeing indications of a strong push of fish,” he said. “The main group of fish doesn’t seem to be coming in.”
According to historical data, at least 25 percent of the run should enter the river by June 22, Hayes said.
“If something doesn’t materialize by then we’ll have to take a serious look at it,” Hayes said.
So far, managers have been following the department’s normal subsistence fishing schedule, which limits fishermen to two fishing periods per week of 36 or 48 hours, depending on the district. If more fish don’t show up, that time could be reduced, Hayes said.
Subsistence fishermen in the lower river are catching fish as far upstream as Holy Cross, which is about 300 miles from the mouth.
Biologists are predicting another weak king run for the Yukon this summer. The department’s preseason projection for this year’s run was anywhere from 155,000 to 226,000 kings. Last year’s run was estimated at approximately 170,000 kings.
That’s the minimum number of fish needed to meet escapement and subsistence needs. Subsistence fishermen take about 50,000 kings a year.
During the past three years, the king run has failed to meet both the demand from villagers living on the river and the obligations set forth in an international treaty between the U.S. and Canada to get a certain number of fish on Canadian spawning grounds.
While more than enough fish (about 70,000) reached Canada last year, fishing time was cut severely for subsistence fishermen. Commercial fishing, a once-lucrative business on the lower Yukon, was prohibited for the second year in a row.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.