Alaska plays numbers game with salmon

Alaska’s Pilot Station sonar system used to estimate chinook salmon escapement figures is skewing the numbers in favour of Alaskan fishers,…

Alaska’s Pilot Station sonar system used to estimate chinook salmon escapement figures is skewing the numbers in favour of Alaskan fishers, says an American fisheries researcher.

Canada and Alaska use different methods of estimating the number of salmon in the Yukon River crossing the border — a sonar system in Alaska, a mark-and-capture system in Canada.

The two systems have produced different numbers since Alaska began using the sonar system, leading to disagreements over escapement provisions in agreements between countries.

“The (Alaskan Fish and Game) department has been playing this mixing apples and oranges story big time, and it’s wrong,” said Chris Stark, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Science in the School of Fisheries and Oceans at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

“It’s an inaccuracy in a big way … The Canadians won’t put their foot down and say that.

“Canadians are being royally screwed by the United States.”

It’s an Alaskan shell game and at stake are the livelihoods of people living and fishing along the Yukon River, he said.

Border passage numbers specified in the Yukon River Salmon Agreement between Alaska and Canada are based on Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates gleaned from its mark-recapture program, by which salmon are tagged and counted throughout the run.

The same number of salmon are crossing the border no matter what system is used for estimates, but the Pilot Station sonar is more accurate, said Stark.

In 2006, the sonar counted roughly 70,000 fish crossing the border, while the mark-recapture counted only 29,000, said Stark.

Because the agreement numbers are based only on the mark-recapture system — essentially an index on which to base decisions about opening or closing fisheries — Alaska claims to meet its treaty obligations using different numbers from DFO.

“If the Alaskans want to use the sonar system, then we should times DFO’s number (by 2.3), and that’s the number that we need to put across the border according to sonar,” said Stark.

Sonar estimates are closer to the real numbers, but the agreements need to be renegotiated if sonar system is used, said Stark.

“We must have an honest discussion about what numbers really mean what,” he said. “The people that want to mix the apples and oranges argument are angling for a better share themselves.”

Earlier this month, low escapement numbers prompted DFO to close the commercial and domestic chinook salmon fisheries on the Yukon River, while recreational fishing is allowed if anglers release their catches.

In previous years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has used Canada’s mark-recapture estimates to meet its agreement obligations, said John Hilsinger, commercial fisheries division director for the department.

“We’ve never said we’ve met our requirements using sonar numbers,” he said in an interview with the News.

But in a news release sent out Friday from the commercial fisheries division, officials disagreed with the Canadian estimate of 25,000 to 30,000 salmon crossing the border this year.

“Using two sonar counters (one on each bank) just below the US/Canada border near Eagle, ADF&G’s estimates a larger escapement of about 40,000 chinook salmon. This would be within range of the preseason escapement goal,” said the news release.

When asked about the assertion, Hilsinger, who is quoted earlier in the release, said the statement was inaccurate.

“I would have to look at that again,” he said. “That’s not how I understand it. That is a funny statement. Nobody caught it in the final version.

“We agree by the mark-recapture numbers, the border passage in below the number agreed to preseason. We’re not arguing with that.”

Canada and Alaska fisheries officials will have to discuss the different methods they use at upcoming meetings to stop any further confusion, said Hilsinger.

The Yukon River Salmon Agreement must be renegotiated if sonar numbers will be used in the future, he added, because the sonar system has revealed that more salmon are crossing the border.

Hilsinger would like to see more escapement monitoring on the Canadian side, he said.

“A lot of issues on the Yukon River between Alaskan and Yukon fishermen are related to escapement data,” he said.

“The US would like to see more money allocated (by the Canadian government) to get harder numbers on escapement.”

The disagreement over the use of two different ways to count escapement numbers is an argument that is far from finished, said Stark.

“There’s a misrepresentation of the truth,” he said.

“Until somebody in Canada pulls the trigger, the United States will keep screwing with them.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

City council meeting in Whitehorse on Feb. 8. At Whitehorse city council’s March 1 meeting, members were presented with a bylaw that would repeal 10 bylaws deemed to be redundant or out of date. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Out with the old

Council considers repealing outdated bylaws

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

A Housing First building on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street will be taken over by the Council of Yukon First Nations and John Howard Society later this month. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CYFN, John Howard Society take over downtown Housing First residence

The organizations have pledged culturally appropriate service for its many Indigenous residents

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read