At $1.50/lb., lamprey harvest tops Yukon salmon

The commercial harvest of lamprey eels on the lower Yukon wrapped up over the weekend, with just under 37,000 pounds harvested and sold.  That’s 7,000 pounds less than a quota set by the Department of Fish and Game.

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Lamprey harvested around Grayling last week. Photo by Kwikpak Fisheries.
Lamprey harvested around Grayling last week. Photo by Kwikpak Fisheries.

The commercial harvest of lamprey brings a welcome infusion of cash to village fishermen during the Christmas season, but the overall health of the lamprey population is a mystery.

Fish and Game managers don’t have a good sense of how many Arctic lamprey return to the Yukon each year, nor how many are reaching their spawning grounds.

A previous attempt to estimate the size of a lamprey run using sonar was not successful, and other research methods are hindered by the fact that lamprey migrate under the cover of ice in the dead of winter.

Fish and Game’s Yukon River lamprey manager Sabrina Garcia says it is unlikely more light will be shed on the Yukon lamprey population anytime soon, so the department will continue to rely heavily on information from fishermen along the Yukon.

“As a manager it is really hard to manage a fishery when you don’t have an estimate of population abundance. And unfortunately with our impending state budget cuts, it is going to be even harder in the following years to come up with projects and fund projects to get these estimates.  So talking to fishermen on the river and getting their knowledge – they live on the river, they know these runs – try to get them to give information on run timing and relative run abundance.  That’s what really helps us to manage the fishery.”

At $1.50/pound, the lamprey fishery pays out a higher price than any of the commercial salmon fisheries remaining on the Yukon.

Kwik’pak Fisheries bought lamprey at three locations this year: first at Emmonak, then Mountain Village, and then the bulk of the commercial harvest occurred around Grayling from December 8th through the 10th.

The lamprey caught on the Yukon go into a wide variety of markets, ranging from gourmet restaurants to bait shops.