Chinook run shaping up to be a disaster

The Alaskan governor has urged the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to declare a fishery disaster on the Yukon River. Sean Parnell pressed the office to make the declaration for both 2011 and 2012.

The Alaskan governor has urged the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to declare a fishery disaster on the Yukon River.

Sean Parnell pressed the office to make the declaration for both 2011 and 2012.

Last year, the commercial fishery of chinook salmon on the Yukon River was completely shut down and subsistence harvest was greatly restricted. This year is looking even worse.

The Secretary of Commerce has already declared the 2009 season a disaster for the fishery.

While the final counts for this season are not in yet, almost all of the chinook that will enter the Yukon River this year have done so, and the numbers are the worst on record.

As of July 16, 104,000 fish had been counted at the Pilot Station sonar counter near the mouth of the river. That’s down from an average count of 146,000 at this time, and an average count of 135,300 in years when the run is late, as it was this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has restricted the times where subsistence fishing is allowed in order to protect the run and help meet their border obligations and escapement goals.

Every Tuesday through the summer, representatives from communities along the Yukon River and fishery officials on both sides of the border join a teleconference to hear about how the fish run is doing from the people on the ground.

This week, many Alaska communities reported that they could not fish even when allowed to do so because of high water levels and floating debris.

Some said that they have harvested less than half of the chinook required to meet their community’s subsistence need, but that they have stopped fishing for chinook and will wait until the fall chum run, which is expected to be strong.

Meanwhile in Canada, First Nation communities along the Yukon River are still waiting to see how many fish will reach them this year.

“Until we see the numbers coming across the border, we’re not sure what impact those management measures (by the Alaskan government) will have had on the run,” said Mary Ellen Jarvis with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Cutting fishing times by half will not necessarily result in a 50 per cent reduction in harvest, because communities could fish harder during the available openings, Jarvis said.

The first chinook reached the Eagle sonar counter, just below the Canadian border, on July 2. As of July 16, 600 fish had been counted.

In previous years an average of 7,500 fish had reached the counter by that date.

While things are not looking good, no radical management decisions will be taken until we have a better idea of how many fish will make it across the border, Jarvis said.

“We certainly have put First Nations on alert that we are trying to take a very conservative approach until we have that information.”

That means that First Nation fisheries are being asked to hold off the early fish if possible and wait to see how the run is doing.

Here in the Yukon, First Nations have the authority to manage their own fishing activity. They do so in co-operation with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under “voluntary community-based management,” Jarvis said.

In past years, First Nations have introduced various measures to restrict their harvest, including reducing fishing times, reducing the harvest, or authorizing elders-only fish camps.

These management techniques have been successful in the past, Jarvis said.

However, if the run starts to look any worse than it does right now, officials could consider shutting down the fishery entirely.

“Ultimately DFO does have the authority to manage the fishery for Canada,” Jarvis said.

Through an amendment to community licences, the department could outlaw fishing altogether, and that decision would be enforceable.

This extreme measure has never been taken in the past, and is “not somewhere we want to go,” Jarvis said.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at