Last year, Yukon River subsistence fishermen got their first chance to target king salmon since 2012. More of the same might occur this year, as preseason projections for the 2017 Yukon king run suggest a slight improvement over last year.
A project that studies young salmon as they are heading out to sea is helping managers get a clearer picture of future salmon runs.
Since 2003, Dr. Katie Howard from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and her crew of researchers have operated small-mesh trawl surveys in between St. Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta, catching several hundred young salmon of various species. Through genetic testing, researchers are able to determine where the fish are from. Most juvenile salmon caught are just emerging from the rivers to spend their first winter at sea, and most come from the Yukon River drainage.
Howard reported that the offshore sampling project has measured an increased abundance of juvenile Yukon River king salmon since 2013, and that bodes well for king returns starting this summer.
“Those fish that we first saw in 2013, those should be coming back to the river as six-year-old fish this year,” Howard said. “So we are expecting approximately between 90,000 and 130,000 Canadian-origin Chinook to the Yukon this year.”
Combined with kings bound for spawning grounds in the American part of the drainage, the overall Yukon king run this year should be slightly larger than last year’s, when an estimated 177,000 kings made it past the Pilot Station sonar – the highest estimate since 2009.
Using the juvenile off-shore sampling data, Howard has been able to generate a king salmon run forecast for each run since 2013, and the actual runs have fallen within the range of her predictions each year except 2015.
Howard explains that her run predictions seem to working well because they gather data at a critical point in the life cycle of a salmon.
“It’s at a point that is after whatever it is that is causing good abundance versus bad abundance is occurring,” Howard said. “What we are seeing when we measure these fish in September of their first year in the ocean is that after that point, marine survival is pretty stable from year to year to year. About five percent of all of the fish that we see out in the ocean tend to survive and come back to the river.”
Department of Fish and Game Yukon River Summer Season Manager Holly Carroll said that the juvenile sampling data helps fine-tune the traditional forecast derived from escapement estimates, which might predict a fairly wide range of potential outcomes.
“For the last few years, the juvenile forecast has come in a little higher than our forecast,” Carroll said. “That just tells us that we may be looking at the upper end of our forecast range.”
Though she is encouraged by the upward trend that the juvenile sampling project is suggesting for the next few Yukon king runs, Carroll remains cautious and doesn’t want to reorient the official run forecast upwards.
“It just kind of keeps people remembering that these runs are half the size they used to be, that we are still in conservation mode,” Carroll said. “And while there may be just a little bit of subsistence harvest, we are not out of the woods yet.”
Subsistence fishermen on the Yukon should expect a similar management strategy as last year, according to Carroll. That means that king fishing will be prohibited during the early part of the run, and only selective gear types like dip nets and beach seines will be allowed to target summer chum. If the king run comes back as strongly as anticipated, then Fish and Game would allow for retention of kings later in the run, and possibly schedule directed openings for kings using 7.5-inch mesh nets.
The juvenile offshore sampling project is planning to operate this year as well. The work has operated largely from grant funds and lacks any consistent financial support from the state or federal government. This year’s work will be paid for largely by the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund and in-kind contributions for staff and gear. Howard hopes to expand the use of genetics in her work to support a drainage-wide forecast for king salmon, and to begin forecasting Yukon coho returns, for which there is a shortage of solid escapement data.