For the third year in a row, a record high number of coho salmon have been caught in the lower Yukon commercial fishery.
As of September 1, 141,000 coho were caught and sold in Yukon River Districts 1 and 2. That tops the previous record of about 130,000 set last year. And all of those coho were essentially by-catch in the fall chum commercial fishery – which sent over 415,000 fish to market this year.
Fish and Game’s preseason forecast for coho called for an average to below-average run in 2016. But as Fish and Game’s Yukon Fall Season Manager Jeff Estensen explained, the coho run appears to be coming back stronger than that.
“We really don’t have an idea of what the run size is right now,” Estensen said. “But the passage we have past the Pilot Station sonar as of August 31st, when the sonar stops operating for the fall season, is sitting at 167,000 fish, which is certainly above the median passage for cohos.”
Based on indications of a stronger-than-expected run, Fish and Game is giving the green light to directed commercial openings for coho on the lower Yukon.
But the General Manager of Kwik’pak Fisheries, Jack Schultheis, does not anticipate that the September coho openings will add very much to the already record-breaking harvest total.
“I don’t expect a lot of fish – maybe 5 or 6 thousand, tops,” Schultheis predicted. “And we don’t have the effort that we would have during August. A lot of people are getting ready for winter, hunting, and gathering wood,” he added.
Kwik’pak – the sole fish buying operation on the lower Yukon – paid fishermen a dollar per pound for coho this year – up from 75 cents last year. Fall chum prices also went up, from 60 cents to 75 cents per pound.
Schultheis said that the higher prices reflect increased demand, and that Yukon-caught coho are going entirely into retail grocery stores in the lower 48.
Relative to other salmon runs on the Yukon, the percentage of coho taken in the commercial fishery has been high in recent years, at close to 50 percent.
With more pressure on coho stocks, Estensen said it would be helpful to get more information about the Yukon coho stock, which he calls the “least understood” of all of the major salmon species that return to the Yukon.
“We are trying to get funding for a telemetry study, and a study like that would give us more of a handle on run timing and distribution throughout the drainage,” Estensen said. “And then we could take that information and certainly improve our monitoring of coho to get a better handle on things.”
There is only one escapement goal for coho salmon in the Yukon drainage, compared to six for king salmon. And much of the coho run escapes detection because a portion of the run typically comes into the river after test fisheries and counting operations are shut down for the year.