Parasite Plagues Some Yukon Kings

As Yukon salmon continue their summer runs, subsistence fishermen continue to express frustration about gear restrictions, closures, and — now — potentially infected fish.

Salmon drying on a fish rack. Photo: KNOM file.
Salmon drying on a fish rack. Photo: KNOM file.

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When managers and fishermen met for their weekly teleconference on Tuesday, they heard reports of discoloration and pus in chum salmon.

“Folks here [are] complaining about summer chums having white patches and pus sacs,” said Marvin in Pilot Station.

Basil in Russian Mission added: “A lot of these fish have pus in the meat, so that’s a bummer.”

Virgil in Fairbanks described the sings of infection.

“Little pockets of pus when you fillet the fish that’ll be about the size of a pea or maybe a little smaller,” he said. “And I know that in warm water, which is what we have right now, ichthyophonus really grows rapidly if the fish is infected.”

Stephanie Schmidt, summer season area management biologist for the Yukon for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, said the parasite ichthyophonus could be the culprit.

Nome Fish & Game biologist Jim Menard said ichthyophonus has been found in Yukon Chinook salmon in the past, with severe instances in the 1990s and with more sporadic outbreaks of the parasite through the early 2000s. Menard said the pathogen is not harmful to humans.

Schmidt said “yes, ichthyophonus can occur in chums, and warmer water has been associated with prevalence of ichthyophonus in other species. So that is one potential explanation.” She invited fishermen to submit samples for testing.

The summer chum run is now estimated at 1.3 to 1.5 million fish, which is average but below Fish & Game’s preseason predictions. The first pulses are passing through Tanana, Koyukuk, and Kaltag, but many stragglers are still lingering in the lower river. Schmidt said that’s led to record numbers for commercial fishermen.

“There have been record catches of summer chum salmon with dip nets this year in district one and district two,” she said. “To date, the dip net and beach seine commercial fishery in these lower districts have caught 185,700 summer chum salmon and they’ve released just over 8,000 Chinook salmon.”

Meanwhile, subsistence fishing has been a mixed bag. Abundant chums on the lower Yukon have helped fishermen like Joseph in Nunam Iqua to fill his racks.

“They had a three-hour subsistence opening on Tuesday, and we were finally able to fish with pride,” he said. “I was able to get 118 chums and six kings, and I was so happy for the kings.”

But fishermen upriver have struggled to meet their subsistence needs, citing plenty of activity but little production. Jack in Kotlik said gear restrictions are largely to blame.

“I’m not familiar with using a dip net,” he said. “I grew up using gill nets, and I’m not going to switch back to the white man’s way of fishing. I’d rather fish the way that my ancestors fished, so I have to go to Point Romanoff to catch my subsistence fishing. We’re allowed to keep our kings on that side.”

Fish & Game is continuing efforts to protect the kings through strategic closures, but Chinook numbers are still weak. Eighty-one thousand kings had passed through Pilot Station by the end of June —about 20,000 thousand fish fewer than the historical average.

The possibility for incidental harvest of Chinook has been discussed — and even allowed — for short periods in areas with strong passages of chum. But the general call for immediate release, coupled with gear restrictions, hasn’t allowed for much — which Ellis in Ruby said continues to harm traditional subsistence practices.

“Us not having a chance to actually set nets, do the traditional cutting, and whatnot … I see this tradition slowly dying,” he said. “This is very important to my village, and our subsistence needs in my village are not being met at all.”

Jack in Kotlik echoed that closures conflict with Native practices.

“We grew up eating our staple foods all our lives and now you guys are just making criminals out of Alaska Natives. And I don’t like that,” he said.

Schmidt pointed out that Fish & Game is trying to work with fishermen on gear usage and incidental take of Chinook.

For instance, she said “there are new regulations in 4A Upper that allow drift net gear during this time of the season. Didn’t want to just limit you to set net gear only. We also — in case anyone does have a fish wheel — are removing the condition that you have to man your fish wheel at all times and release all king salmon.”

Schmidt said it’s possible that king escapement goals will be reached this year, but conservative management strategies will continue to ensure that happens.