The number of chinook salmon that crossed the border into the Yukon this year is higher than it has been in at least the last decade.
Stephanie Schmidt, a fishery management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said about 84,000 salmon have crossed the border, putting this year’s run size well above the pre-season estimate of 59,000 to 70,000 fish.
“I am pleased that there are more fish than we expected,” she said. “It looks like the chinook run is starting to see some improvements from our lowest year in 2013.” In 2013, the total run size was just 39,000 salmon.
Chief Carl Sidney of the Teslin Tlingit Council agreed that the higher numbers are a good sign. But he cautioned that there’s still a long way to go. His band has imposed a voluntary moratorium on the chinook salmon fishery since the late 1990s, and he said continued restraint is what’s needed to bring the numbers back up.
“If you open it up now, we’re just going to lose everything we’ve gained,” he said. “We’d probably like to see this happen for at least a cycle anyway.”
A cycle refers to the six- or seven-year lifespan of a chinook salmon. Just because numbers are higher this year, that doesn’t mean they’ll continue to rise in the coming years. Run sizes in any year depend on how many fish were spawned roughly six years earlier. And because so few were spawned in 2012 and 2013, there are likely more bad years ahead.
Schmidt said it’s also important to distinguish between the number of fish crossing the border and total run size. This year’s run is definitely larger than it’s been in the last several years – last year’s was only 63,000 – but the 2005 run was quite a bit larger, numbering around 124,000. The difference is that back then, far more salmon were harvested in Alaska.
This year, Alaska all but closed its subsistence fishery after early estimates mistakenly suggested the run size was lower than expected. Schmidt believes those inaccurate estimates may be the fault of low water levels and warm water temperatures, which may have pushed the fish into deep, cooler water in the middle of the river. There, salmon are harder to detect with sonar.
“We definitely missed a lot of chinook moving through there as a result,” she said.
Schmidt said she expects to hear some complaints this fall, as people start to realize they could have harvested more than they did. She’s pleased that more fish are returning to their spawning grounds, but said this year has been tough for Alaskans.
“On our end of things, that’s fish that could have been harvested by Alaska fishermen,” she said. “That’s food that could be on people’s tables.”
The need for cross-border solidarity may be one more reason for Yukon First Nations to forego their subsistence fishery this year, despite the higher numbers.
“I think that most First Nations are on board with putting more fish on the spawning grounds and looking to the future,” said Mary Ellen Jarvis, a resource manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “A number of First Nations have come forward with resolutions that they had in place saying it didn’t matter how many fish came across the border, they would not harvest salmon this year.”
Jarvis said a few First Nations have been catching chinook, but not in large numbers. Some have put a cap on the number of fish that can be taken.
Like Sidney, Jarvis is cautious in her optimism. She said managers need to see an increase in productivity before they can say with any certainty that the future of chinook salmon is looking brighter. The number of salmon returning to spawning grounds isn’t the only thing that matters. Each female needs to successfully spawn more juveniles, too.
Until that happens, she said, it’s hard to say what lies ahead.
“It’s a good positive sign that we have fish on the spawning grounds,” she said. “It’s not necessarily an indicator of the future.”
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