“There is the potential for it to be slightly higher than recent years, probably not to the point where we might not have to take some additional actions to insure that adequate escapements are achieved.”
Last year, there were subsistence fishing closures on the Kuskokwim River and restrictions on the Yukon River.
Historically, the Kuskokwim River has been the largest subsistence fishery in the state, with an average take of 70 to 80 thousand kings a year.
On the Yukon, kings are not only valued for subsistence but were once the “money fish,” bringing some of the highest prices in the state, because of the salmon’s high oil content. But last season, less than a thousand fish were harvested commercially due to limited opportunity. Under a treaty with Canada, a minimum of 45,000 kings must be allowed to escape to their spawning grounds.
Researchers aren’t sure why the chinooks aren’t returning. There are a number of theories -- from climate change to natural fluctuations in the runs, as well as high numbers of king salmon that are caught by trawlers in the Bering Sea, as they target other species like pollock.
“The big unknown, or black box as it’s sometimes referred to, is, what happens to those salmon as they go out into the Bering sea or to the open ocean?” said Linderman.
Myron Naneng, who is president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents more than fifty tribal governments in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, believes trawler bycatch in the Bering Sea is one of the main culprits.
“More recent studies have been provided that show that as much of the 80 percent of the chinook salmon are from Western Alaska rivers and streams,” said Naneng.
Naneng says this season’s outlook comes on the heels of an extremely harsh winter, compounded by fuel prices, in most cases, higher than seven dollars a gallon.
Naneng says AVCP gets about a hundred calls a day from villagers asking for heating assistance, which means they’ll be starting the summer even more cash poor than usual, and likely facing even higher fuel prices.
“If they don’t have that extra food that they usually harvest, they’re going to have to buy more expensive food from the village (stores),” said Naneng.
“We’re worried about extended closures being implemented like last summer,” says Naneng. “We worried about people not getting enough salmon to prepare for winter.”
Naneng says the limited openings for subsistence on the Kuskokwim River last year may have done more harm than good for salmon. Normally subsistence fishing is staggered, but in one case, Naneng says, more than 700 skiffs went out fishing during one opening.
“It was combat fishing,” Naneng said. Adding to that frustration, he says, is dealing with a dual system of state and federal management.
“Both Fish and Game and US Fish And Wildlife never agree on who has the best biological information. Ultimately, it’s the people in the river system who pay the price for conservation,” said Naneng.
The AYK regional supervisor says new research which utilizes radio telemetry may help shed light on Kuskokwim kings, which ran very strong in 2004, 2006, and 2007. These were the parent years for salmon produced five to seven years later. And based on escapement numbers, this season should be a good one, instead of one that’s expected to mirror past years of poor returns.
Linderman says researchers wonder if too many kings escaped in those parent years, and poor survival resulted, because there was too much competition between the juvenile salmon for food.