Subsistence users, scientists seek answers for chum salmon declines

A man in a gray t-shirt with black hairs stares ahead.
“It’s hard to comprehend that this is happening in my lifetime. It makes me sad just thinking about it,” said Bill Alstrom of St. Mary’s. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Bill Alstrom lives in St. Mary’s on the lower Yukon River. It used to be that if he wanted fresh salmon for dinner, he’d throw a net in the river to catch a couple. But with fishing closures this season, he can’t do that anymore.

“It’s hard to comprehend that this is happening in my lifetime,” said Alstrom. “It makes me sad just thinking about it.”

Chum salmon stocks have sharply declined over the last two years in Western Alaska. It’s a major problem because people in the region, like Alstrom, depend heavily on the fish for food and for work. With chinook salmon low for decades, chum were the fish that families could depend on until last year, when the summer chum run dropped below half of its usual numbers. This year, the run dropped even further, to record lows. The State of Alaska has closed fishing for chum to protect the runs. 

Scientists are in the early stages of trying to understand the crash.

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Biologist Katie Howard with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that the chum declines are not just occurring in the Yukon River.

“When we talk to colleagues in the Lower 48 and Canada, Japan, Russia, they are all reporting really poor chum runs,” she said. “So it’s not just a Yukon phenomenon. It’s not just an Alaska phenomenon, but pretty much everywhere.”.

So why are the chum numbers so low? The short answer is that no one really knows for sure. But there are a lot of theories.

Every week during the summer, subsistence users, biologists and fishery managers gather on a weekly teleconference hosted by the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. They share information and ask each other questions, and the subsistence users bring up one theory for the decline again and again: bycatch.

Bycatch is when ocean fishing vessels targeting one species also incidentally kill other fish. Some see it as a necessary evil, while others are opposed to it completely. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association tracks bycatch. Non-chinook chum salmon bycatch is already bigger than normal this year, and bycatch has been trending upwards since 2012.

NOAA distinguishes between non-chinook and chinook bycatch because chinook bycatch is heavily regulated. If trawlers catch more chinook than allowed, they have to cut short their fishing season. It incentivizes trawlers to avoid chinook feeding grounds. Trawlers must also report their non-chinook salmon bycatch, but there are no limitations on these amounts. NOAA estimates that 99.6% of its non-chinook salmon bycatch is chum.

So if chum bycatch is greater than normal this year and trending upward, would bycatch be a major factor in Western Alaska’s chum decline?

Not necessarily, said a NOAA spokesperson, because the fish that are dying on the trawlers are largely not bound for Western Alaska. About 16% are from coastal Western Alaska, and less than 1% are from the upper and middle Yukon.

The rest of the bycatch is mostly hatchery fish: fish that have been hatched in a controlled environment. They’re largely from Japan.

RELATED: Yukon subsistence users go to new lengths for food after chums don’t return

Hatchery fish are also cited by some as a possible cause of chum decline. Jack Schultheis is the manager of the only wild salmon processor on the Yukon: Kwik’pak Fisheries Emmonak.

“I think it’s disrupted something in the foodchain,” Schultheis said.

A man with a black cap that says Alaska on and a black zip-up hoodie looks off into the distance.
Kwik’pak manager Jack Schultheis says this year’s chum run is the worst he’s ever seen. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Kwik’pak is Native-owned, by a community development quota (CDQ) group called Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, which also owns trawlers. NOAA data shows that CDQ trawlers are responsible for less than 10% of chum by-catch, and Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association-owned trawlers are responsible for less than 1% of chum bycatch on American vessels.

State biologist Howard doesn’t think hatchery fish are the issue. That’s because hatchery fish populations haven’t changed much in the past 30 years. But Peter Westley, an associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, thinks hatchery fish could be at least part of the problem.

“These declines in salmon that we’re seeing in our local rivers is possibly linked to actually, ironically, too many fish in the ocean,” Westley said.

Since the 1970s, he said, the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea have been full of food for both wild and hatchery chum, and both populations have grown over the decades. But now he suspects that increasing competition for food has led to the massive decline.

“The reality is, you don’t know that you were at a tipping point until it’s in the rearview mirror,” he said.

Westley said that climate change could be the culprit behind the lack of food in the ocean. He said that crashes in salmon stock will be more likely as the ocean continues to warm. This competition affects hatchery and wild fish alike, leading to dwindling numbers for all salmon, he said.

RELATED: How low chum runs changed the lives of these Western Alaska fisheries workers

On the Yukon River, subsistence fisherman Alstrom also thinks warming temperatures could be a factor in the crash. In his 70 years in St. Mary’s, he’s seen the changes in the environment firsthand.

“And all these trees out there looks like a jungle,” he said. “There used to be scrubs out there when I was growing up.”

Alstrom said that the animals in the region are changing too. He never saw moose as a kid, but over his lifetime they started to move in.

Researchers are trying to understand the chum crash. For decades, biologists have mainly been focusing on chinook salmon, which have a longer history of decline and are more valued by commercial and subsistence fishermen.

NOAA and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are leading two surveys on the Bering Sea this year to study salmon marine life. Howard, the state biologist, is out on one of those surveys right now. She said she’d like to see more funding to study chum overwintering habitat in the North Pacific but said that it’s expensive and dangerous to conduct that research because of turbulent winter seas.

Westley said that the number one question that needs to be answered now is where the chum are dying in their lifecycle. That will help scientists determine what’s killing the fish.

Alstrom said that it will be hard for his community if the salmon don’t return.

“It’s just not right when you live in your region that’s supposed to be teeming with salmon, and to go without it,” he said. “It’s just devastating.”

Despite the decline, biologists say that chum are not endangered, and the subsistence fishing closures are helping the salmon get to their spawning grounds.

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