Frustrations grow along Yukon River as salmon fishing remains closed for second year amid record low runs

boats on the shore
Boats along the Andreafsky River are packed and ready if evacuation orders come through in St. Mary’s, Alaska. June 11, 2022. (Katie Basile/For KYUK)

It’s a grim outlook for Yukon River Chinook and summer chum salmon.

Chinook salmon counts are the lowest ever recorded at this point in the season, and state and federal fishery managers do not expect them to meet escapement goals. The low numbers are also making it difficult for biologists to determine if the run is late.

The summer chum run looks slightly better in comparison, but only in that it’s the second-lowest run ever recorded at this point in the season, just barely ahead of last year’s record low. It’s too soon to tell if summer chum will meet escapement goals. But if the run tracks with last year, then it won’t.

As long as escapement appears unlikely for Chinook and summer chum, subsistence salmon fishing will remain closed for a second year.

Frustrations are building along the Yukon River amid the closures so far.

Some Alaska Native residents claim that the restrictions are eroding their cultural inheritance. But the managers making the regulations say that opening the fishery could jeopardize the fish runs long-term.

“This is the most disconnection to the river I’ve had in all my life,” Holy Cross resident David Walker said, calling into the weekly Yukon River salmon management teleconference hosted by the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. He said that no one nearby is fishing, and described neglected fish camps overgrown with grass.

“I don’t want to get too negative, but I heard one Elder tell me, ‘It’s like cultural genocide,’” Walker said.

A caller from Marshall said that not being allowed to fish was restricting Alaska Natives from their ancestral rights. Rampart tribal member Brook Woods said that there is a reason why fishery testimony becomes emotional.

“These are fishermen facing a crisis. We are tied to these salmon. They’re our cultural wellbeing, and one thing that wasn’t taken away from us with assimilation,” Woods said.

Federal fishery manager Holly Carroll with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that she understood that closing all salmon fishing is “incredibly severe.” But she said that with Chinook runs already unlikely to meet escapement, managers cannot allow even a single opening.

“Right now, we’re nervous that if we don’t get all the fish to the spawning grounds, then four or five years from now we would have poor returns that could mean closures again,” Carroll said.

Compounding escapement concerns is that of the Chinook that enter the river, fewer than expected are making it to Canada. Biologists are researching why. One theory is that they are dying in the river from disease. Biologists are collecting heart, kidney, egg and blood samples from Chinook caught in test fisheries to test for health issues like Ichthyophonus and kidney disease.

Carroll repeated many times that if there were enough salmon to open fishing, then managers would do so.

Some callers did support the closures. A caller who identified herself as Ruby in Eagle said that she supported the restrictions as a way to protect salmon runs and encouraged managers to maintain their escapement goals.

While directed salmon fishing is closed on the Yukon, fishing is open for non-salmon species, like whitefish, using 4-inch gillnets that are no more than 60-feet in length. Some callers said residents did not have 4-inch nets, while others reported steady whitefish harvests.

Pink salmon began hitting the coast in recent days and entering the Yukon River mouth. Sockeye and pink salmon caught in all gear can be kept. Managers ask that fishermen release Chinook and chum back to the water when alive.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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