Alaska wants Yukon River labelled a ‘fishery disaster’

With Alaska reeling from its worst-ever chinook salmon harvest, newly-appointed Alaska Governor Sean Parnell is calling for US authorities to declare the Yukon River a "fishery disaster.

With Alaska reeling from its worst-ever chinook salmon harvest, newly-appointed Alaska Governor Sean Parnell is calling for US authorities to declare the Yukon River a “fishery disaster.”

“I ask that you make such a determination … and enable those affected by this significant resource disaster to access federal assistance,” wrote Parnell in an August 7 letter to the US secretary of Commerce.

Meanwhile, the Canadian side of the river is seeing its best salmon return in three years.

More than 68,000 chinook were counted passing the sonar station at Eagle, Alaska, just before the Yukon border.

“This time last year, there was 34,000 salmon,” said Frank Quinn, area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Yukon First Nations are fishing without restriction.

The Yukon’s commercial, sport and domestic fisheries have also been allowed a taste of the action.

But the Canadian surplus is not due to more fish (the run is actually lower than usual) – it’s just that Alaska didn’t catch as many.

For 2009, the Alaska sport and commercial fisheries were closed, and Alaska’s subsistence fishers saw their allowable fishing times cut in half.

Those restrictions probably won’t happen again.

“It looks like it’s turning out that perhaps we were slightly more restrictive than we needed to be,” said Cora Crome, the Alaska governor’s fishery policy advisor.

Alaska officials will be “making adjustments” in 2010 to ensure more fish end up in Alaskan nets.

“Obviously, while still meeting our border passage obligation,” added Crome.

“We’ll take what we learned this year, and figure out how to get the fish across the border, yet still be less restrictive on the Alaska side,” said Steve Hayes, Yukon River area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“In the end, it may not be as restrictive next year,” he said.

An editorial in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the disparate Alaska/Yukon salmon harvest with a quote by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

With Parnell’s call for a declaration introduced only two weeks after Sarah Palin left office, the letter is being seen as a key policy shift by the new Alaska governor.

“(Palin) didn’t care about the plight of people on the lower Yukon (in Alaska),” said Myron Naneng, president of the Alaska Association of Village Council Presidents.

“I think we have more focused leadership … instead of someone that wants national attention,” he said.

The call for a disaster declaration is not so much a Parnell-versus-Palin decision, but a “timing issue,” said Crome.

Palin was still in office when Alaska first pondered the declaration, but state officials were waiting to see if the season would be bad enough to warrant the request.

“(The salmon) can surprise us, and they do surprise us every once in a while,” said Crome.

US fishery disasters have been declared on salmon rivers in California and Oregon.

“The current situation is similar to, or more severe, than those situations,” wrote Parnell.

In California and Oregon, collapsed salmon populations have largely resulted in mass unemployment.

In Alaska, the collapse of Yukon River stocks have resulted in a humanitarian crisis.

Last summer’s poor salmon run forced Yukon villagers to call for emergency shipments of food aid.

“Commercial fishing is the only identified industry in the region that brings new money into the economy,” wrote Parnell.

Residents on the lower Yukon have “a total reliance on one resource for food and income,” said Crome.

“You have very limited alternate employment opportunities, not a lot of other things going on in the economy of the region, high cost of living – these folks have been hit very hard,” she said.

The estimated average household income for the lower Yukon River is $31,866.

By contrast, the US-wide median income is $50,233.

“(The lower Yukon) is one of the poorest regions in the entire US,” said John Halsinger, the director of commercial fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

On top of that, villagers face extremely high living costs.

A four-litre jug of milk can cost $15.

Fuel is more than $2 a litre.

“This combination of factors makes the loss of income from the commercial fishery critical,” wrote Parnell.

For isolated Yukon River villages, salmon is often the only hope of bringing in an income.

“Subsistence and commercial fishing are really the backbone of the economy for the entire Yukon River on the US side,” said Halsinger.

“There really isn’t a lot of opportunity for Yukon River villagers to shift over into other ways of earning a living,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com