Low numbers mark 2007 chinook run

Chinook salmon returns are low, but fishery experts hold out hope for next year. “We didn’t get the numbers we expected to see,”…

Chinook salmon returns are low, but fishery experts hold out hope for next year.

“We didn’t get the numbers we expected to see,” said Frank Quinn, a regional director with Fisheries and Oceans.

“We didn’t come close.”

With an escapement goal set between 33,000 and 43,000, the number of chinook salmon passing the Alaska-Yukon border reached between 23,000 and 25,000, according to the department.

In early August, the low numbers closed commercial and domestic chinook salmon fisheries. They remained closed for the entire season.

Recreational fishing was allowed, but only under a catch-and-release order.

Aboriginal fisheries pulled 4,000 salmon from Yukon rivers.

Why the salmon were returning in low numbers — a regional problem — is still unclear and will be for sometime, said Quinn.

Biologists will study several factors to determine the cause of the low run.

Researchers will look at how many salmon of Canadian origin made up this year’s run and will also examine the age, sex and size of salmon recorded during the season.

“It’s not a single factor situation — we’re looking at everything to come up with an answer to what happened,” said Quinn.

“Were these smaller fish coming back, and were they not making it to where they wanted to go?

“And what were the oceanic conditions that could have affected the stock?”

Fisheries and Oceans is already looking at next year’s run, and preliminary work to determine preseason estimates is underway.

Meetings between Alaskan and Canadian officials will take place over the next year to discuss the 2007 season.

Two meetings are planned for December and March 2008.

“The big task now is to get all the agencies together to figure this out,” said Quinn. “We’ve got a lot of work to do from now until the meeting in December.”

Traffic through the Whitehorse Rapids fish ladder was much slower than usual this year. Only 427 chinook — 167 females and 260 males — came up the ladder this summer.

That’s just one quarter of the average number.

Not only were there fewer fish, the ones that came through did not look healthy, said Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery manager Lawrence Vano.

“The first three quarters of the run the fish were really beat up — not in very good shape at all,” said Vano.

“But in the last quarter, the fish were beautiful. There were no net marks and they weren’t banged up.”

Rough looking fish, indicating weariness, could lead to difficulty spawning, said Vano, adding he talked to someone familiar with the spawning grounds who saw something new to the salmon run.

“He found one female that hadn’t spawned, and that’s something he hadn’t seen before.”

The peak day this year saw between 30 and 40 fish come up the ladder. That’s less than half the 80 to 100 average peak-day numbers.

“We didn’t see the big numbers come in any one day,” said Vano. “It would peak then all of a sudden it would appear to drop off. Then it would peak again and drop off. It was really an unusual run. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

It’ll be five years — when the majority of fry hatched this year return to the Yukon — before people know how strong the 2007 spawning season was.

Adding to the natural spawning season, Vano said the hatchery is releasing 140,000 fry, close to the 150,000 target.

“We’ll do OK,” he said “We’ll have a better idea of the quality of eggs in October, but I’ve never spawned fish this late in the year before.”

The natural recruitment is what worries Vano right now, and he’ll wait to see how many fish actually spawned successfully.

“But these fish are pretty tough, too,” he said. “They have a goal and they’ll do what they can to get it.”

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