Late, slow Yukon River salmon run prompts processor Kwik’Pak to pack up

Kwik’Pak Fisheries in Emmonak, Alaska on July 15, 2019. (Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK)

There are so few chum salmon on the Yukon River this summer that the processor in Emmonak is closing down its operation because they don’t have any product to sell.

To say that Kwik’Pak, the only fish buyer on the lower Yukon, had a bad summer would be an understatement. General Manager Jack Schultheis spent over $1 million getting staff and supplies to Emmonak. To ensure a safe operation during the pandemic, he even added staff to the payroll. Then the fish didn’t show up. 

There have been poor runs before. The year Kwik’Pak started its operations was one, but this time there simply were not enough fish to sell. Schulthies is sending most of his staff home, while the few that remain will do some maintenance, pack up the plant, and keep the company store open for locals.

Why the chum salmon are late and low this year remains a mystery. There is speculation that it might relate to the warm ocean temperatures earlier this decade, or be the result of competition from hatchery pink salmon. 

The chum crash is not just happening on the Yukon. Research biologist Fred West with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that it’s occurring throughout the Bering Sea. Chums were late and low in Bristol Bay rivers, on the Kuskokwim and Yukon, and even in Norton Sound.

In both the Bristol Bay and Kuskokwim river systems, the red, or sockeye, salmon are more than making up the difference. They also came in late, but in huge numbers. 

The Yukon River doesn’t have sockeyes. Instead, it usually has a strong summer and fall chum run. The average run is 2.5 million fish. This summer, less than half of the predicted numbers showed up. ADF&G has counted 700,000 summer chums on the Yukon, which is just enough to make managers’ lower-end escapement goal. Biologists worry that the river’s fall chums will also be low.

Shultheis says that Kwik’Pak took a big hit, but the company will be back next year. He says that the commercial chum fishery is a major source of income for villages on the lower Yukon.

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

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