The first chinook salmon have arrived at the Whitehorse fish ladder, as reports from the Yukon-Alaska border confirm that escapement goals have been met for the second year in a row.
As of Monday morning, close to 58,000 chinook salmon had crossed the border into Canada, surpassing the minimum escapement goal of 42,500.
About 80 per cent of the run has now returned to the Yukon.
“It’s looking fairly strong, largely as a result of the fishing activity, or lack thereof, on the U.S. portion of the drainage,” said Mary Ellen Jarvis, a resource manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The Alaska portion of the Yukon River was closed to commercial, sport, and subsistence fishing for chinook salmon through most of this year’s run. Early projections from the Pilot Station sonar site in the lower reaches of the river had managers worrying that escapement targets wouldn’t be met.
Stephanie Schmidt, a fishery management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said exceptionally warm water and low water levels in the Yukon River also boded ill for this year’s run.
But in the last week, as the Eagle sonar station near the border recorded higher numbers, Alaska finally opened a subsistence fishery in the upper portion of the river. As of Monday, that fishery was open 24 hours a day.
“This season’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride,” Schmidt said. “We maintained a fairly conservative management approach because of what we were seeing at Pilot Station. The sonar at Pilot Station was potentially undercounting… what was actually in the river.”
Jarvis said this year’s run is about 44 per cent female, up from last year, when the percentage of males was higher than normal.
She said Yukon First Nations may now fish for chinook, but “have been advised to proceed with a conservative harvest.”
So far, at least four Yukon First Nations have requested their subsistence fishery allocations, according to Pauline Frost, chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee. But requesting an allocation doesn’t necessarily mean they will target chinook salmon, she said. They may simply keep any chinook they catch while harvesting fall chum.
Dave Sembsmoen, director of lands and resources for the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, said he believes his First Nation will uphold a voluntary closure, or a very limited catch.
“Even as we maintain our escapement goals, there’s got to be a time where people pull back on that resource,” he said. “If we want anything for future generations, it’s our responsibility to do something about it now.”
The Teslin Tlingit Council also plans to maintain a voluntary closure of the fishery. The First Nation hasn’t fished chinook salmon in 15 years.
Even though escapement goals have been met, this year’s run will come nowhere close to historical runs, which numbered around 150,000 fish.
The run has exceeded the cutoff for commercial and sport fisheries, a minimum of 55,000 salmon. But Frost said she “would suggest at this point that there won’t be a commercial fishery.”
Still, she said this season has been “ideal” in terms of management.
“We have compliance in Alaska, we have compliance in Canada,” she said. “We have First Nations that are really behind the conservative efforts, that are pushing for conservation.”
Chinook salmon escapement goals were met last year, but were not met in 2012 or 2013.
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