Ocean bright chum

Ocean bright were caught at the transition of summer-fall chum at mouth of the Yukon River. Courtesy Christy Gleason

Weak runs of king and chum salmon entering the Yukon River over the summer had fishery managers and fishers holding out hope for strong numbers of fall chum and silver salmon. It didn’t happen.

In fact, in the case of fall chum, the run has been historically bad.

Based on in-season assessment projects, “the fall chum salmon run size is projected to be near 200,000 fish based on median timing. The run is currently tracking as the lowest run size on record,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Bonnie Borba said during a Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association teleconference on Sept. 8. Borba also said that the fall silver, or coho, salmon run appears to be late and weak. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preliminary summer season summary for 2020 gives an indication of how the chum situation looked before the fall run came in weak.

“On July 18 (the cross over date between summer and fall seasons), less than 700,000 summer chum salmon had been counted at Pilot Station, which was well below the historical cumulative median of 1.86 million fish,” the report states. 

Pilot Station, on the Lower Yukon River, is where state fisheries managers use sonar to estimate the size of salmon runs.

Sport fishing for both king and chum on the Yukon closed in early May and late July respectively. Sport fishing on the Tanana closed in late June for king and on Aug. 12 for chum. All of those closures are currently set to remain in place until the end of the year. 

There have also been closures and limitations throughout the season for commercial and subsistence fishers. The disappointing runs are combining with limitations created by the COVID-19 pandemic to create a dire situation, especially for subsistence fishers who rely on the salmon as a major dietary staple. 

Mushers in villages off the road system, including Tanana and Fort Yukon, have been left to wonder how they will feed their dog teams over the winter without the chum salmon harvest they usually rely on.  

Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has been working with mushers and dog food companies to get dry dog food to those in need. While that effort has been going well, Quinn-Davidson pointed out that it does not begin to address the overall need created by poor harvests. Her organization helped purchase 50,000 pounds of silver salmon from a Bristol Bay company for human consumption. Quinn-Davidson called it “a drop in the bucket of what people really need to replace the subsistence harvest.” 

Fishery managers base restrictions on escapement goals that represent the number of fish that need to make it up river to spawn in order to have a sustained population. 

Multiple factors can contribute to weak runs and poor harvests. The majority of fish entering the Yukon from the ocean during summer and fall runs usually consist of age-four fish and initial testing has shown extremely poor survival rates for age-four chum salmon. 

The Fish and Game summer season summary notes that, “During weekly teleconferences throughout the summer fisherman reported high water, debris, loss of eddies, cool wet weather that was poor for drying fish, and difficult fishing conditions. High water levels likely resulted in slower swim speeds for Chinook (king) and summer chum salmon.” 

Fish and Game biologist Jeff Estensen said it’s too early to determine what accounts for the poor chum survival rates. 

“What’s interesting is that it wasn’t just isolated to the Yukon. Other rivers came back low as well and also missing four-year-old components,” Estensen said. 

Whatever the case may be, Estensen noted, “It’s probably pretty safe to say this year is the lowest run on record,” referring to the fall chum run specifically. 

Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, said her organization is taking the lead on drafting a letter requesting that Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy declare a disaster for the 2020 Yukon River fishing season. But relief money from such a declaration would still take years to reach those in need.  

Additionally, a disaster declaration would be for commercial, not subsistence, fishers.

Now, subsistence fishers face a double dilemma in the wake of weak runs and dealing with a global pandemic. Federal CARES Act virus relief money for fisheries participants in Alaska to help with losses related to COVID-19 will eventually become available. However, of the $50 million that will be distributed in the state, only $1.5 million is allocated for subsistence fishers, and, as Fitka pointed out, losses can be difficult for subsistence users to prove.


Contact staff writer Sam Ferrara at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.