Pandemic strains management of Yukon River salmon

King salmon. Photo by ADFG.

Management of the Yukon River summer salmon season is in flux. 

Some of that is normal. No one ever knows whether the fish will show up in the numbers predicted. But there is a new factor. This year, the state and the river communities are looking at how best to monitor salmon, while at the same time keeping local people safe from the coronavirus pandemic. 

This summer, the Yukon River fishery is going to be managed out of Anchorage. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s biologist, Holly Carroll, usually flies to her office in Emmonak to manage the fishery during the salmon run. Not this year. Biologist Matthew Keyse said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also not be manning their office in Emmonak. Instead, the staff will be staying home in Fairbanks.

But you don’t have to go up the Yukon River to Emmonak to see the change. It starts downstream at the sonar project near Pilot Station, where ADF&G counts salmon swimming up the Yukon, and also samples genetic information to help estimate how many king salmon are swimming all the way to Canada. 

The logistics for setting the gear up and supporting crews out in rural Alaska are routine, but now managers must also work with villagers to protect people from the risk of COVID-19. Some people in Pilot Station have expressed support for the project and the department’s approach, but community leaders have not yet formally given approval for the state’s mitigation plans. They are expected to do so soon. Most rural Alaskans want to find a way to keep on fishing because it’s an important source of income and food.

Carroll, who manages the Yukon fishery, said, “the information from Pilot Station is crucial. Without it, I would have to manage the king salmon harvest based on the lowest predicted return. And that could reduce harvest of both the coveted kings, and opportunities for commercial and subsistence fishing for other salmon species.” 

This summer’s information is also being limited by the loss of two fish weirs on a couple of the Yukon’s tributaries. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service usually operates those weirs, but Keyse said that travel bans, and other restrictions and safety concerns caused by the pandemic made it too logistically complicated. “It should not affect the management of the Yukon fisheries,” he added. Carroll, who manages the Yukon summer season for the state, agrees. 

“The information from the weirs is more important as an escapement report card,” she said. “Whereas the Pilot Station sonar is essential for determining the strength of the run.”

A mitigation plan for Eagle is also in the works. That’s where a sonar station counts king salmon just before they reach the Canadian border. Under a treaty agreement, the U.S. must assure enough of the Yukon River’s kings swim into Canada to meet both escapement standards, and provide a share of the harvest for Canadian fishermen. 

According to Carroll, that translates to “42,500 to 55,000 kings to Canada, as well as 23% of the harvestable surplus as a share for Canadians.”

Johanna Eurich is a contributor for the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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