Alaska regrets fish flub

Alaskan authorities are vowing to take "a more conservative approach" to managing the Yukon River's chinook next year, following the lacklustre return of the fish to Canadian waters.

Alaskan authorities are vowing to take “a more conservative approach” to managing the Yukon River’s chinook next year, following the lacklustre return of the fish to Canadian waters.

Just 33,000 of the magnificent fish battled up the river as far as the Canadian border this summer, making it the second-worst season on record. That number falls well short of Alaska’s treaty obligation to allow 42,500 chinook to reach Canada annually.

Next year, the state will consider giving the first pulse of chinook free passage up the river to ensure more fish reach Canada, according to a letter written by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans earlier this month.

Last year, Alaska made the opposite mistake, letting too many fish through to Canada, resulting in the state falling down on its responsibility to give its own subsistence fishers their fair share of the run.

“There was a bit of an overcorrection,” said Yukon’s regional Fisheries and Oceans director Frank Quinn.

Heavy ice and high waters also skewed Alaska’s early estimates of the run’s size at the mouth of the river. By the time state biologists understood the run was far smaller than their conservative estimates, harvesting had already begun along the lower reaches of the river.

The state later asked subsistence fishers to voluntarily reduce their chinook catches, with the understanding that an outright ban may have been defied by fishers, which has occurred in past years.

Those who did fish had to contend with high waters and floating debris that threatened to damage gillnets and fish wheels. The washout of the road to Eagle also prevented some fishers from reaching the river.

In the end, Alaskans caught an estimated 2,000 chinook, down from annual catches as high as 8,000.

In the Yukon, many First Nations discouraged their members from catching chinook to allow the fish to reach their spawning grounds, said Steve Smith, a Fisheries and Oceans biologist.

“First Nations have really taken hold of their responsibilities to manage fisheries,” said Smith. “And I really don’t envy the national resource managers when they have to say there isn’t enough fish to go around. I know it’s really challenging on those guys. A lot of First Nations just didn’t fish this year.”

The commercial chum fishery at the mouth of the Yukon River accidentally caught around 10,000 chinook this summer. Approximately one-quarter of those fish would have been bound for Canadian waters.

But the fishery did donate chinook to the annual Gwitch’in gathering in Fort Yukon, and it sent another batch to the Council of Yukon First Nations.

And a power failure in Whitehorse on August 18 may have inadvertently helped several batches of chinook with their struggle up the fish ladder. During the outage, biologists observed a surge of salmon climbing the ladder.

It seemed that, with the turbines down, the fish were more inclined to notice the current of water flowing into the ladder. Yukon Energy has since created a similar effect by raising the spillgates, said spokesperson Janet Patterson.

“In the future, that’s something we’ll keep in our toolkit,” she said.

Salmon have fared better on the Alsek River, where this year’s sockeye run is looking to more than double the 10-year average, with approximately 30,000 fish destined for the Klukshu fishing camp at Dalton Post.

“It’s a bumper year,” said Quinn.

As a result, earlier this week the department raised daily catch limits for sport fishers from two to four, while possession limits for recreational fishers rose from four to eight.

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