Alaska has met its Yukon River chinook salmon escapement goal for only the third time in the past eight years.
As of Monday, the number of Canadian-origin chinook counted by sonar near the border village of Eagle stood at 56,197, which surpasses the minimum goal of 42,500 called for in the Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the United States.
Under the treaty, Americans have to allow that number of chinook salmon to pass into Canadian waters.
The upper end of the escapement range is 55,000 fish.
However, the minimum goal had not been reached in five of the past seven years.
Dennis Zimmerman, executive director of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, said Canada is now working towards meeting its spawning escapement requirement, now that Alaska has met theirs.
“Alaska has a responsibility to put at least 42,500 fish across the border and Canada has a responsibility to put a minimum of 42,500 fish on the spawning grounds,” he said.
To date this season there has been no chinook salmon fishing permitted in Canadian portions of the Yukon River watershed.
It is the first time ever that the First Nations fishery has been shut down completely.
The committee does not expect that to change, said Zimmerman.
“Our recommendation (to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is to maintain a zero allocation based on conservation concerns. The challenge is that there are significant productivity concerns with these fish.”
The salmon run is composed of primarily five-year-old fish, which lay fewer eggs and have smaller offspring.
Zimmerman said they would much rather see six, seven and eight-year-olds.
“We don’t see the eight-year-olds anymore,” he said, ” and it’s not a good thing that we’re seeing five-year-olds.”
Another concern is the male-to-female ratio, which is abnormal, said Zimmerman.
Seventy per cent of the fish are male, when it’s preferable to have around 60 per cent.
There are also issues with the return-per-spawner, he said.
“It used to be that one chinook would produce four but now we’re hovering at around one-to-one and even below one in some years.”
“It means the fish aren’t as productive and not replenishing themselves at the same degree.”
Zimmerman said one year above escapement doesn’t constitute a rebuilding of this run, which is why the sub-committee is maintaining its zero-allocation recommendation for the time being.
Some First Nations have suggested two cycles – or 14 years – with no fishing to replenish the stock.
More meetings were taking place this week to discuss the issue, Zimmerman said.
This year, for the first time, Alaska introduced a ban on targeted fishing of chinook salmon.
Eric Newland, Yukon area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said this a feat Alaska has worked hard to achieve.
“It means people on the river are choosing not to fish,” he said.
“These king salmon are allowed to pass up river and make it into Canada for escapement.”
The salmon enter from the Bering Sea into Alaska waterways and travel as far as 3,000 kilometres to spawning grounds on the border of B.C. and Yukon.
Communities along the river rely on the fish for subsistence.
Alaskan communities along the Yukon River have returned to regular fishing rules as the chinook run has passed, Newland said.
That fishing would target mostly the summer chum salmon run.
When 95 per cent of the chinook salmon run has passed through a specific management area, that’s when people are put back on scheduled fishing, he said.
More than 137,000 chinook salmon have already been counted at the Pilot Station sonar, which is located almost 200 kilometres from the mouth of the Yukon River.
The preseason estimates suggested that the total run size would be between 60,000 and 120,000 fish.
In 1982, the salmon run peaked at around 300,000 fish.
As the fish move up river, they start peeling off into various tributaries, said Newland.
“It’s another year of very conservative management, even more so than last year.”
Last year, despite strict fishing regulations, only 30,000 chinook salmon managed to pass the border.
“The harvest this year should remain very low. I think we’re thankful that this year’s run size looks like it’ll be large enough to make some goals.”
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