Commercial and domestic Chinook salmon fisheries will probably close next week, says the Fisheries and Oceans department.
The salmon run is not strong enough to open the fisheries based on the latest numbers, but the count is better than previous estimates.
Before yesterday, the salmon passing through Pilot Station sonar in Alaska numbered 61,000, less than half the 10-year average.
The run improved to 102,000 on Thursday.
“That’s still low and we’ll be in the yellow zone, which means there’ll be restrictions,” said Frank Quinn, Fisheries and Oceans area director for the Yukon.
A minimum run to keep fisheries open would be about 120,000.
Fisheries and other agencies will make a decision next week.
“We have to see first how sustained the run is,” said Quinn.
The returning fish are from the 2003 spawning year, and current returns are less than half of what biologists expected five years ago.
Sport fishing might also be allowed only under a catch-and-release order, added Quinn.
Two salmon have passed the Alaska-Yukon border to date, but it’s early in the run.
It’s still too early for a decision on First Nation subsistence fishing.
Alaskan overfishing has not been a problem this summer, said Quinn.
About 23,000 to 25,000 salmon passed into Yukon waters last summer, short of the 33,000 to 43,000 goal.
US fishers were blasted for mismanagement and the overfishing of chinook salmon that led to the closure of commercial and domestic fisheries in the Yukon.
Some suggested the countries’ two different systems of tagging salmon — used to estimate salmon runs — led to overfishing.
This year, US monitoring agencies cut fishing hours in half and restricted the length of mesh nets, allowing larger fish to power through.
Alaska closed its commercial fishery this year and allowed limited subsistence fishing.
“The US started to get push-back from its subsistence fishers … an indication that restrictions are tough and working,” said Quinn.
Last month, the chair of the Yukon Salmon Committee, Carl Sidney, suggested banning chinook salmon fishing on the Yukon River for five years.
A ban would replenish stocks, according to Sidney.
But a moratorium doesn’t guarantee better fishing, said Quinn.
“Getting large numbers to the spawning grounds doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a good return,” he said.
Other factors contribute to low runs.
“It’s a coast-wide problem,” said Quinn.
Several theories are bandied about, but it could be any number of factors shrinking the chinook salmon population.
Ocean conditions, food sources — how accessible and how varied — and migration patterns could cause shifts in numbers, said Quinn.
“It could be any combination of reasons,” he added.
Earlier this year the Pacific Salmon Commission, a bilateral body that deals with fish management, released a new agreement that would significantly change catch numbers if approved.
Southeast Alaska’s chinook salmon catch will be cut 15 per cent while the west coast of Vancouver Island would see a 30 per cent reduction, sending one million more fish through rivers.
“There are pretty significant impacts,” said Quinn.
Scaling down the harvest is an attempt to help the rebuilding of depressed natural spawning grounds in the Yukon.
“It should take the pressure off some of the harvest and allow fish to come back to their native rivers,” said Quinn.
The 10-year agreement would start in 2009.