Board of Fish considers commercial fishery for Yukon pinks

(NOAA photo)
(NOAA photo)

A proposal laying the groundwork for a pink salmon commercial fishery near the mouth of the Yukon is on the agenda of this week’s Board of Fisheries meeting in Fairbanks.

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The proposal would formalize a fishery that has been taking shape by accident over the past few years, but there are concerns about how it would affect the struggling Yukon king salmon population.

The proposal was submitted by Kwik’pak Fisheries – the major fish buyer on the lower Yukon.  It would allow the Department of Fish and Game to open commercial fishing with 4-inch mesh nets to target pink salmon at a time fishermen are using other gear types to harvest the tail end of the summer chum run.

Kwik’pak Fisheries General Manager Jack Schultheis says that, until fairly recently, pink salmon have been largely a disposable fish on the Yukon.

“Historically there has never been a market for pinks on the lower Yukon or anywhere on the Yukon that I am aware of,” Schultheis said. “So what fishermen have been doing is just throwing them away.”

Seeing the fish go to waste, Kwik’pak started buying pinks in 2008, paying only a few cents per pound.  Now Kwik’pak is aiming to pay fishermen 20-25 cents per pound for Yukon pinks, which Schultheis says can command a higher price in the marketplace than a typical Alaska hatchery-raised pink.

Kwik’pak is already selling substantial quantities of pink salmon, which are harvested incidentally in the summer chum salmon commercial openings in June and July.  Two-hundred-thousand pounds of pink salmon came out of the lower Yukon in 2014 – a large portion of which went to Europe as fillets.

Fish and Game does not have escapement goals for pink salmon or a detailed stock assessment, but sonar at the Anvik River estimated almost a million pinks going past it in 2014. About 60,000 pinks went up the Andreafski near St. Mary’s that year as well. Yukon pink runs in odd-numbered years are much smaller.

Fish and Game is neutral on the proposal to establish a directed pink salmon fishery.  Yukon Summer Season Manager Stephanie Schmidt says the Department is taking a “wait and see” approach, but does not think that pink salmon fishing in the mid-summer will harm the depleted stocks of Yukon king salmon very much.

“Just a little bit of overlap with the king salmon run, towards the tail end,” Schmidt said. “ But honestly, we currently have a commercial summer chum fishery at the tail end of the king salmon run while there are still summer chum available, so I would see no problem with us prosecuting a pink salmon commercial fishery as the pink salmon are coming in and the king salmon are wrapping up – as long as we are meeting escapement goals for king salmon.”

Support for the pink salmon proposal among the fish and game advisory committees is split along regional lines, with lower river committees in support, and opposition coming from upriver committees, who expressed concern that a pink fishery will result in more bycatch of king salmon.

The Board of Fish is scheduled to begin its deliberations on Yukon River salmon proposals Wednesday afternoon, with voting to occur on Friday.