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Alaska puts boots to subsistence chinook fishers

Alaska has cancelled its commercial chinook fishery and limited its subsistence catch in a bid to get more salmon across the Canadian border.

Alaska has cancelled its commercial chinook fishery and limited its subsistence catch in a bid to get more salmon across the Canadian border.

Despite the unprecedented move, Canadian salmon returns are still expected to be dismal.

“It’s not like the catches will be any better than last year,” said Sandy Johnston, chief of Yukon resource management for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In 2008, despite heavy cutbacks on its commercial fishery, not enough chinook made it across the Canadian border, violating Alaska’s obligations under the Yukon River Salmon Agreement.

Nobody will be allowed to fish the first “pulse” of Yukon River salmon. Then, subsistence fishers will be asked to drop their harvest by half.

In Alaska, the term ‘subsistence fisher’ refers to both natives and nonnatives.

“You’re talking about affecting the rural Alaskan lifestyle,” said Johnston.

Half of all Yukon River chinook originate in Canadian spawning grounds.

Faced with the farthest distance to travel, Canadian salmon are the most likely to get caught.

“Successful stewardship of this stock is necessary to prevent the current temporary hardships from becoming permanent,” said a recent release by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“We need to get the fish onto the spawning grounds,” said Johnston.

Chum salmon are still returning in high numbers.

Regardless, Alaskan chum fishermen still face restrictions on the off chance that they snare a returning chinook.

As with last year, the Yukon will have no commercial or sport fishing of salmon.

Yukon First Nations will again be asked to catch half of what they would normally take. Salmon stocks have plummeted so much, that even that restricted harvest may not be feasible.

By last August of 2008, only 37 salmon had climbed the Whitehorse fish ladder. Only three were female.

The year before, 457 passed through the fishway.

Every year, tens of thousands of Yukon-bound chinook are snared in the nets of Alaskan pollock fishers as “bycatch.”

In 2007, the $1-billion-a-year pollock fishery snagged more than 120,000 chinook, although that number has dropped in subsequent years.

In early April, Alaska regulators voted to restrict pollock fishers to a maximum bycatch of 60,000 chinook per year.

Salmon-starved Alaskan villages had been calling for a cap of 30,000.

For chinook salmon, things are tough all over.

Three thousand kilometres away, California and Oregon face their own chinook crisis, having been forced to close the salmon fishery for the second year running.

As recently as 10 years ago, northern California welcomed more than a quarter of a million salmon each year.

Last year, only 66,286 showed up, prompting California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency.

Cowichan Bay, British Columbia, was once dubbed the Salmon Capital of the World.

Now, fisheries officials have been forced to reinvigorate the area’s heavily diminished chinook population with breeding programs.

Contact Tristin Hopper at