Chinook numbers shrink

Only First Nations subsistence fishers will be allowed to catch chinook in the Yukon River this year. Commercial, domestic and sport fishers will be out of luck, if the latest counts of the much-prized fish prove correct.

Only First Nations subsistence fishers will be allowed to catch chinook in the Yukon River this year.

Commercial, domestic and sport fishers will be out of luck, if the latest counts of the much-prized fish prove correct.

Scaled-back estimates also suggest that the United States won’t meet its treaty obligations to allow at least 42,500 chinook across the border to Canada. Just two weeks ago, US biologists expected at least that many fish would enter Canada, plus an additional 8,000 chinook for our First Nations fisheries.

Not any more. After US biologists tweaked their computer models to account for glitches caused by late ice and high water, they realized their fish forecast was overly optimistic. New estimates put the number of chinook to reach Canada at between 30,000 and 35,000.

“They took more fish than they should have,” said Frank Quinn, Yukon’s regional director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Still, Quinn doesn’t expect that Yukon First Nations will face restrictions on their chinook catch, unless the run “just totally dies on us.”

Blame, in part, Alaska’s computer gremlins. Had the state’s data been corrected two weeks earlier, its fisheries managers could have reacted by rolling out fishing restrictions, said Quinn.

Whether the state would have had the stomach to impose restrictions on its subsistence fishers is an open question.

Last year, Alaska placed tough restrictions on its native fisheries catching chinook. In doing so it provoked much public anger, with some native fishers openly defying the fishing ban.

As Quinn says, “when you close a fishery, you’re taking food off someone’s table when you’re dealing with subsistence users.”

Outrage only grew when it became apparent that they had let far more chinook through to Canada than required.

Last year, Alaska’s subsistence fishers only took about 33,000 chinook. This season they are expected to catch close to the historic average of 50,000 chinook.

Alaska’s managers have asked subsistence fishers to voluntarily curb their chinook catches this season.

Blame also Alaska’s decision to open fishing on the big summer chum run, which resulted in the incidental catch of 9,500 chinook, 2,500 of which were destined for Canada. At the time that fishery opened, US managers believed they would face a surplus of chinook.

And blame the massive pollock fishery that operates in the Bering Sea, which is believed to accidently scoop up, on average, 80,000 chinook annually.

Alaska failed to meet its treaty obligations for the three years previous to 2009.

So far, the big, glittering fish have reached Old Crow and Dawson City.

Estimating the size of a salmon run isn’t easy, Quinn acknowledged. And it’s easier to crunch data from Canada because, by the time a salmon run reaches the border, we’re able to look at numbers collected from Alaska.

Yukon’s DFO office is in daily contact with their US counterparts, said Quinn. Fisheries managers have been more successful in hitting their targets on the Alsek River, where it appears as if adequate numbers of chinook and sockeye will reach Canadian waters.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.