Commercial Chum Bustling, But Causing Anger on the Yukon

With chum salmon surging through much of Western Alaska, commercial openings are having dramatically different effects from a price spike in Kotzebue, to frustration towards managers in the upper Yukon.

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Jim Menard oversees the Kotzebue subdistrict for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Even though it’s still early in the season, he says the commercial forecast for chum is already half-way met. But the high numbers may have more to do with economics than biology: though a decently strong run, the price offered by buyers in Kotzebue is up to 78¢ per pound.

Chum Salmon. (Photo: NOAA)
Chum Salmon. (Photo: NOAA)

“The average price last year was 27¢—so we’re almost three times higher, which has resulted in a much greater fishing effort,” Menard said. Not since the price peaked back in the ’80s has he seen this many permits issued for commercial salmon fishing in the waters around Kotzebue.

But it’s a different story along the upper Yukon. During a teleconference arranged by the Yukon River Drainages Fisheries Association, fishery managers reported the first chinook—a healthy female—made her way to White Horse, Canada, yet another sign that the chinook run in Interior Alaska is nearly over.

That should mean openings for subsistence users targeting chums. But many callers, like Andrew from Fort Yukon, explained weather is keeping people from getting the fish they need.

“Water levels have been fluctuating a lot but slowly dropping to normal levels and below. Weather has been real cold and windy.”

Several callers from middle and up river communities, like Galena’s Fred Huntington, also challenged Fish and Game managers on decisions to open commercial fishing on the lower Yukon as upper river fishermen deal with lingering subsistence restrictions and thin chum returns.

“I’m not the only one I’m speaking for,” Huntington said during Tuesday’s phone call. “There’s a whole bunch of people up here pretty frustrated because they’re not able to fish, and right now the water’s so high we’re not getting any fish whatsoever. We’re already through the whole summer and I harvested three chums.”

Managers responded by explaining their decisions for commercial openings aren’t ignoring subsistence needs, but are making an effort to use different strategies along thousands of miles of river. Jeff Estensen with Fish and Game says the department is canceling a commercial opening planned in the lower Yukon because strong southwest winds over the last week-and-a-half pushed an early group of fall chum to the mouth of the river.

“We wanna be able to look at spreading the harvest out a little bit. And as we’ve been saying all along that we really are looking at trying to get some of these early fall chum upriver for subsistence. Just by skipping a couple periods in both districts,” said of the commercial closures, “this is gonna allow us to spread the harvest out a little bit.”

Those fall chum are genetically distinct from Summer chum: they’re bigger, more oily, and head further upriver to spawn, filling fishracks in the upper river all the way into Canada.

Summer chum, by contrast, don’t travel as far from the ocean to reproduce. And so far their returns in the Norton Sound have been strong enough for managers to extend commercial openings.

“The plan was to have like a super-period to try to mitigate for a lot of the foregone harvest opportunity on chum salmon at the start of the season when they’re co-mingling with king salmon,” explained area biologist Scott Kent with ADF&G. “We were trying to protect them at the front-end of the run. Now we don’t have to protect them so it’s like ok we can provide some more opportunities to make up for that.”

Recent high water and bad weather not only stopped most of Fish and Game’s counting project in the Norton Sound, Kent said, but it effectively halted the commercial harvest. So managers have shifted a 48 hour commercial harvest to this Thursday evening at 6 o’clock until Saturday for the entire Nome subdsitrict.

For more information on the commercial opening in the Nome subdistrict you can check here.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah