Yukon king salmon run predicted to be weaker than average this year

State and federal fishery managers have released the 2016 outlook for salmon runs in the Yukon River drainage.

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“Chinook salmon, Yukon Delta NWR.” Photo: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Via Flickr Creative Commons.
“Chinook salmon, Yukon Delta NWR.” Photo: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Yukon king run is again expected to come back weaker than average this year, with a similar array of fishing restrictions as years past. No commercial fishing opportunities are planned, and subsistence fishing will be significantly restricted, though possibly a bit more open than the past few years.

The predictions for summer chum on the Yukon call for an average to above average run, meaning directed commercial openings with selective gear types like dip nets, beach seines and live release fish wheels are likely to occur, targeting the abundant summer chum while allowing king salmon to escape to their spawning grounds. Beach seines will be officially regulated on the Yukon for the first time this year, after the Board of Fish in January set limits to a beach seine’s length, depth and mesh size.

Fishery managers expect a lower than average fall chum run up the Yukon this year, but not low enough to threaten escapement needs or subsistence harvests.

Fish and Game Yukon Fall Season Fishery Manager Jeff Estensen said that computer models predict a fall chum run size of around 660 thousand fish, based on escapement data from 2011 and 2012, when most of this year’s returning fall chum were born.

“That forecast is below average for an even year,” Estensen said. “It is important to note that over time even years tend to be lower in abundance than odd years. The average run size in even years is about 800,000 fish, so even if we hit the upper end of our forecast range, it would still be slightly below average.”

As Estensen explained, the Board of Fish passed a proposal in January that makes it slightly harder to open commercial fishing on Yukon fall chum, raising the commercial fishing trigger point from 500,000 to 550,000 fish.

“And what that means is that we cannot allow a commercial fishery drainage-wide on fall  hum unless we are projecting that the run size will be greater than 550,000 fish,” Estensen said.

In contrast to fall chum, the coho run on the Yukon is predicted to be average or above average, in keeping with strong coho returns over the past two years. Last year’s commercial harvest of Yukon coho was the largest on record.

But Estensen said that if the fall chum run is not strong enough to permit commercial openings, then fishermen seeking the higher-priced coho will be largely out of luck.

“Up through August 31st it’s a fall chum commercial fishery,” Estensen said. “Any kind of commercial openings are solely based on the assessment of the fall chum. So if you were ever able to run into a situation where we couldn’t fish for fall chum, we would not be able, under the current regulations we have in place, to have a directed coho fishery.”

Commercial openings to target coho salmon happen from September 1st
through the 10th, according to the Fish and Game Yukon River Coho Salmon
Management Plan.

This year will also see the introduction of a pink salmon commercial fishery on the lower Yukon. Pinks have been caught and sold as bycatch in other fisheries for years, but the Board of Fish created a new set of regulations specifically applying to pinks, allowing the use of 4 and three-quarter inch mesh nets from June 15th to July 31stin the District 1, at the mouth of the Yukon.

Pink runs on the Yukon alternate between strong runs in even-numbered years, and weaker runs in odd-numbered years.

Fish and Game has never officially tried to count Yukon pink salmon, but during the last even-year run in 2014, almost a million pinks were estimated to have passed the Pilot Station sonar station.

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