As chum salmon numbers in the Y-K Delta tank, Area M fishermen are catching as many as ever

Exterior: Metal boats beached on a riverbank
Empty boats line the shore in St. Mary’s after a summer with next to no subsistence salmon fishing on the Yukon River. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

This is the final story in a three-part series about a place known as Area M where subsistence and commercial interests collide.

For years, subsistence users along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers have suffered from low chinook salmon runs. And lately, the typically stable chum populations have collapsed too. Now the Yukon subsistence and commercial fishery for these species is completely closed, and the Kuskokwim subsistence fishery has faced more closures as well.

But while fishermen in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have failed to fill their fish racks and freezers, commercial fishermen near the Alaska Peninsula have continued to catch and sell salmon bound for those two rivers. Though they target sockeye, they catch chum and chinook too. In 2021, during record low chum runs on the rivers, commercial fleets in Area M harvested a record high.

“We need to shut down Area M because they’re intercepting our fish,” said Fritz Charles.

Charles is a subsistence user from Tuntutuliak on the Kuskokwim River. He said that adding new restrictions on Area M is urgent. Charles said that the commercial fishery could decimate Yup’ik culture, which has revolved around the salmon coming up the rivers for thousands of years.

But commercial fishermen like the head of the Purse Seiners’ Association, Kiley Thompson, say that stringent regulations in Area M could decimate his Alaska Peninsula community of Sand Point. People have already moved out after other species of fish declined there.

“If there’s no commercial fishing this community will die. The school here has dropped enrollment below 100 For the first time since the 1970s because it just continues to shrink,” said Thompson.

A state genetics study determined that between 2006 and 2009, around 60% of the fish caught in Area M were bound for coastal Western Alaska rivers. However, during those years scientists estimated that Area M fishermen were taking less than 1% of the overall Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim area runs. The commercial fishermen say that percentage isn’t hurting the overall run size.

Graph: Yukon River chum run by year.
Graph: Number of chum salmon intercepted in Area M in June by year.

But the study is more than a decade old. And there’s no current data to say whether the percentage of chums intercepted has gone up.

The actual number of chum salmon the area intercepts has stayed pretty much the same over the past more than forty years, floating at around half a million or so fish, going back to the 1980s. Meanwhile, the rivers’ runs have declined drastically. Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang wants to hold off on making any management decisions until there’s more data available from a new study.

“We planned the study for, I think, the next two or three years to get a good handle on what our chum intercept rates are in that fishery and what their origins are,” said Vincent-Lang.

Vincent-Lang said that he’d prefer to have the Board of Fisheries make the decision on adding new restrictions. They’ll do so during their 2023 triennial winter meeting. He said that he hopes to have the new data by then, but an ADF&G geneticist working on the study told KYUK that data from this summer likely won’t be ready in time.

University of Alaska Fairbanks salmon conservation scientist Peter Westley doesn’t think that the state should wait to regulate the area. Westley said that faced with a salmon collapse this serious, we should ask ourselves if new data really matters.

“If we are concerned about the ability for salmon and the Yukon and Kuskokwim to continue to exist, I think that we should be driven by a precautionary approach. I guess I’m not convinced that we need more information at this stage given that every fish matters,” said Westley.

What regulations have subsistence users been asking for?

Earlier this summer, The Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, with 13 other Tribal organizations, asked the Purse Seine fishery to voluntarily stand down during the entire June fishery, which is the time when most Western Alaska chum are intercepted. Purse seining is one of three methods of fishing in the area, but it’s the one that intercepts the highest number of chum and pulls in the most revenue.

The seiners did stand down for several days, but declined to wait out the whole month, saying that it would make no difference in the chum runs.

The Tribal groups also wrote a letter to Commissioner Vincent-Lang asking him to shut down the Area M purse seine fishery if the fleet didn’t stand down voluntarily. The commissioner declined to do so in June, saying that his department worked with the purse seiners fishery to reduce the catch of chum. The harvest number diddecrease from last year’s record high, but just back to the average it had been at in prior years.

Now the executive director of the Yukon Fisheries Drainage Association is asking to meet with Commissioner Vincent-Lang’s boss, Gov. Mike Dunleavy. She requested a meeting with him over two weeks ago, and as of July 15 had received no definitive answer.

It’s too late to change the June fishery regulations for this summer. But Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim groups opposed to the Area M commercial fishery will have more opportunities to request regulation changes this winter at the Board of Fisheries meeting. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee have both asked that the Board of Fisheries revert its regulations for Area M back to a management strategy more like 2001. Those were the most effective restrictions at reducing chum catch, and the most stringent. They didn’t last long.

In 2004, the board reversed course after critique from Area M commercial fishermen. It eliminated its strict measures, including nixing a cap on chum catch. Commissioner Vincent-Lang does not believe the intercept fishery is the primary reason for chum declines, which is why he has been hesitant to impose more regulations. He points instead to changing conditions in the ocean.

Would stricter regulations on Area M commercial fishermen work?

Westley said that getting even one spawner back could still impact the greater chum and chinook populations, but he sees both sides.

“The industry is not the primary driver of what’s behind the ups and downs of these populations. It is part of the issue, but it’s not the primary issue. And the other side is right, that they are catching some of their fish that otherwise would come home that might be able to be caught and put in a smokehouse,” said Westley.

He believes every factor counts.

“I think this is a poster child example of death by 1,000 cuts, that there are multiple things that are cumulatively acting detrimentally for salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim right now. The way I think about it is that all of this is happening in the context of a changing climate,” said Westley.

He calls the lack of salmon in the rivers a “cultural death.”

“This is an unfolding tragedy right before our eyes,” said Westley.

And while fishing for Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim bound fish continues in Area M, it is primarily Yukon River subsistence users bearing the brunt of the management. Yukon River residents have not been allowed to fish for their own chinook or chum in two years. Lorena Prince of Kotlik said that her community is suffering.

“A lot of people here don’t have any salmon to eat. And that’s really sad because it’s not fair to our people, to the whole people of the Yukon River. And you know, Area M [is] doing really good. I never thought it would come to this point,” Prince lamented.

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