Yukon king run shows signs of recovery

Chinook salmon. Photo: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Chinook salmon. Photo: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Chinook salmon continue to swim up the Yukon River, the latest indication that the long ailing run may have turned a corner toward recovery.

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An Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar counter near the Canadian border at Eagle  continues to tally king salmon. It’s near the end of the run, but counts have remained pretty good, anywhere from about 800 early in the month to nearly 300 August 10 and 11. That’s well down from the over 3,000 counted daily during the peak of the run a month ago, but State Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt says the extended strength of this year’s Chinook return is surprising.

“We’re actually at just over 83,000 chinook salmon. That’s the most we’ve passed over the border since this project began in 2005.”

The number is more than predicted by computer models and lower river return assessments, and well in excess of a border passage objective of 55,000 kings. This year’s return is the second in a row that appears to show movement toward rebuilding a run that once averaged over 150,000 Canadian origin fish, but has tanked in recent decades due to over fishing and suspected environmental factors. The downturn resulted in extreme fishing restrictions, Schmidt expects will be relaxed next summer.

“We’re still going to make sure we’re meeting escapement goals, but it does mean that there is hopefully more fishing in the future for Yukon River fishermen” she says.

Schmidt cautions that management of next summer’s fishery will hinge on what’s predicted by computer models that try to account for complex factors including the ages of the fish expected to return. She says a salmon research project near the river mouth also being used to predict run strength has been seeing more young Chinook.