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Many questions come out at federal subsistence board meeting

April 14, 2010
  • Fisheries consultant Gene Sandone says in 1998, salmon returned to the Yukon from the ocean with diseases. (Rich Jordan/KTUU-DT)
Fisheries consultant Gene Sandone says in 1998, salmon returned to the Yukon from the ocean with diseases. (Rich Jordan/KTUU-DT)

by Rhonda McBride
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A federal subsistence board meeting held Tuesday brought an important debate for those who live along the Yukon River.

The board heard the pros and cons of two proposals that would restrict salmon fishing to ensure that larger king salmon return to their spawning grounds. 

"The Yukon River is probably the most challenging salmon fishery in the world. You've got a river that'd 2,000 miles long," said John Hilsinger, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's director of commercial fisheries.

Fish spawn along the river's entire length, but many people must share in the harvest of the prized Yukon kings, which are rich in oil and fat. 


But there is no longer enough to go around to meet everyone's needs. 

And no one knows exactly why.

"I just want to point out to you that something dramatic happened in 1998. The fish came back emaciated. They came back diseased. We attribute this to ocean conditions," said fisheries consultant Gene Sandone.

Despite the different theories about why fewer fish are failing to return to their spawning grounds, federal and state fishery managers must take action; a treaty with Canada requires them to do so.

Two proposals are on the table before the federal subsistence advisory board.

They target the nets fishermen use.

One would reduce the mesh size to seven-and-a-half inches for subsistence and commercial salmon fishing in federal waters. The move would allow larger and presumably older salmon to escape.    

The other would shorten the depth of the nets.

"I believe that there are other conservation measures that haven't really been proven out there," said Billy Charles, a fisherman from Emmonak.

Emmonak has been hit hard by fishing restrictions.

Charles used to be able to earn a living from commercial fishing, but now he's having trouble catching enough to feed his family.

Smaller mesh size will reduce his harvest, and it's a sacrifice he's not sure will make a difference.

"The options presented here all have the potential of for attaining this objective," said Katie Howard, a Yukon River area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

State and federal biologists say the modeling shows that reducing mesh size will help rebuild the run. But there's no guarantee.

"Because the fisheries and fish populations are dynamic, it is impossible to predict with any certainty the success of any action when it translates to the actual fishery," Howard said.

During the meeting, both federal and state biologists had trouble coming up with answers to many questions.

"How long was your study? Was it at the beginning of the run and throughout the season?" asked Weaver Ivanoff, of Unalakleet, who sits on the Seward Peninsula Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

"The study was suspended partially in 2008, when the run didn't develop as planned, and we felt that it was important to conserve fish wherever we could," answered Dani Evenson, the regional research supervisor for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region for the state Department of Fish and Game.

One constant in the debate: The lack of data and an overwhelming number of questions.

Some ask if shortening the depth of the nets really make a difference? 

"If you do shorten the depth of nets, for some areas, then fishermen are going to fish in other areas," Evenson said.

Federal and state fishery managers also say there's no science to support that this will help reduce catches.  

Jack Reakoff, who serves on a regional subsistence advisory council, wanted to know if the plan to reduce mesh size accounts for changes in the salmon as they migrate up river. 

"As the fish progress up the drainage, their catchability actually increases. As they become smaller, they might not fall out of the net nearly as easy," Reakoff said. 

At the end of Tuesday's meeting, the federal subsistence board decided to reduce mesh size restrictions to seven-and-a-half inches.

That brings regulations in line with state regulations that apply to the entire Yukon River.

The board did not take action on the proposal to reduce the depth of nets.

The regulation takes effect in the 2011 season, giving people time to make the transition.

Contact Rhonda McBride at Articles