Alaska’s pain, Yukon’s gain

It's not that there's more chinook salmon than usual, it's just that Alaska isn't catching as many.

It’s not that there’s more chinook salmon than usual, it’s just that Alaska isn’t catching as many.

So, while Yukon fishers are preparing for the best salmon harvest in more than two years, Alaskan fishers are reeling from the state’s worst-ever salmon harvest, brought about mainly by an unprecedented slate of fishing regulations.

For 2009, Alaska closed its commercial fishery and slapped subsistence fishers with a 50 per cent reduction in fishing windows.

“Restrictions did allow for a lot more fish to go upriver,” said Craig Fleener, director of subsistence fishing for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Sensors at Eagle, Alaska, have already confirmed that 55,000 Chinook have crossed the Canadian border, about 10,000 more than the minimum goal.

It’s the first time in three years that Alaska has met its obligations to the Yukon River Salmon Agreement.

By contrast, last year at this time, only 19,000 salmon had been detected passing Eagle.

Thanks to the surplus, Yukon First Nations can now fish without restriction.

And, starting at noon yesterday and running until midnight tonight, sport, domestic and commercial fisheries will be open.

But on the whole, salmon returns are actually down.

“I don’t think the run is particularly strong overall; in fact, I think it’s below average,” said Sandy Johnston, lead scientist for the Yukon office of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“The main reason you’re seeing numbers the way they are is (Alaska’s) diligence in trying to get fish through,” he said.

That diligence has come at a “great expense” to people along Alaska’s lower Yukon River, said a resident of Marshall, Alaska in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer.

In the isolated river village of Galena (population 650), only about 30 per cent of families caught 75 per cent of their subsistence needs, reported the Newsminer.

The rest caught 50 per cent or lower.

Facing widespread political angst from villagers, it’s unlikely Alaska regulators will impose a similar salmon fishing crack-down in 2010.

Part of the problem is that Alaska, unlike the Yukon, doesn’t have the benefit of being able to pinpoint the exact size of its salmon run.

The Yukon River is narrow where it enters Canada, allowing fishery officials a pretty accurate forecast of incoming fish.

It would be almost impossible for Alaskans to obtain similar data from the massive Yukon River Delta.

“To try and estimate numbers coming in, they’re going to have to err on the side of caution,” said Johnston.

Fishing a declining salmon population at the slightest indication of a surplus seems to be a counterintuitive way to maintain chinook stocks for the long term.

It’s not quite that clear cut, said Fleener.

“Some (scientists) believe that you should let more salmon go to the spawning grounds and hope for more, and some believe that allowing too many salmon to get to the spawning grounds is just a waste,” he said.

“It’s more of a philosophical question.”

Catching a male fish, for instance, likely wouldn’t affect returns; there’s more than enough salmon sperm to go around.

California’s Sacramento River commercial chinook salmon fishery has also been closed since 2007.

But if Sacramento’s commercial fishery was suddenly thrown open, it wouldn’t be surprising if few fishing boats hit the water, said Harry Morse, public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Many have already retooled to catch rockfish, herring, crab and flatfish.

“One of the boats I personally know of is now doing harbour tours in San Francisco,” said Morse.

“It’s not so much a question of boats, it’s a question of individuals who have switched to some other form of income,” he said.

Faced with such short notice, Yukon commercial fishers likely won’t be able to take many salmon.

“A lot of the fish caught by commercial fishermen may not be sold; it may go to their own personal use,” said Johnston.

Contact Tristin Hopper at