Net Restrictions on the Yukon Aim to Preserve Kings

Summer chum and Chinook salmon have begun their runs along the Yukon River.

Wildlife managers and fishermen met via teleconference yesterday to discuss river conditions and the salmon’s progress upstream. Community members reported summer chum as far upriver as Huslia and Ruby, with Chinook salmon fast on their heels.

However, the much-coveted kings may not be a welcome sight to fishermen this year. Stephanie Schmidt is Fish and Game’s the summer season fishery manager along the Yukon. She says Chinook numbers continue to be low – mandating fishery closures once the salmon enter each upriver community.

“2015 is going to be another challenging year for us. We’re expecting a Chinook salmon run similar to last year. Which was an OK run last year. We met escapement goals. But only because of the very conservative management goals that had to be taken and all of the efforts that fishermen took to conserve Chinook salmon.”

Several fishermen voiced frustration at the closures – not because they’ll miss out on the long-restricted kings, but because gear restrictions (such as on nets larger than 4 inch-wide mesh) will hinder their ability to capture the more abundant chum.

Jack from Huslia explains that the arrival of Chinook salmon typically coincides with the peak summer chum run in his community.

“When you close it – that’s when the best fish go by for us. That’s when we lose our half-dried fish and our dried fish.”

Because Chinook salmon can be caught in gill nets just as easily as chum, all nets wider than 4 inches will be off-limits once the kings arrive. Schmidt says fishermen will still be allowed to use nets that are 4 inches or smaller for sheefish and smaller species throughout the salmon closure.

One fisherman, Martha from Ruby, says that is small consolation in communities where purchasing additional nets may be cost prohibitive.

“We have to eat along this river; everybody has to eat. They can’t live out of the store. I can’t afford to get another net that’s smaller.”

Schmidt thanked fisherman for their continued efforts to conserve king salmon – and says she knows it hasn’t come without sacrifice. She also shared some positive news from ADF&G researchers monitoring Chinook in Pilot Station.

“Those researchers have been reporting just phenomenal catches of juvenile Chinook salmon. More so than last year. And I just offer that as a little bit of hope, you know. Hopefully we are creating more baby Chinook salmon that grow up to be big Chinook salmon and come back.”

The meeting concluded with an atypical concern: Fishermen wanted to know what would happen to state-managed fisheries on the Yukon (and farther North) if lawmakers are unable to reach an agreement on the state budget before July 1st, instigating a partial government shutdown.

John Linderman is regional supervisor for the Arctic Yukon-Kuskokwim region of commercial fisheries. He believes it unlikely that the budget impasse will reach that stage in Juneau. However, he says wildlife managers have considered it – and there is enough money to keep fisheries functional until at least August of this year.

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Francesca is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.