Fishermen on Yukon lose economic opportunity when buyer becomes overloaded, cancels opening

Subsistence fishers check their nets near Koyukuk on the Yukon River. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Fishermen are selling more salmon than the Yukon River’s only buyer can handle. On Monday, record-breaking sales closed a commercial opening for fishermen upriver. Those fishermen spent Tuesday watching tens of thousands of dollars swim by during the river’s first opportunity to sell king salmon this decade.

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District One in the lower Yukon River saw its first commercial opening of the fall season on Monday, and Kwik’Pak Fisheries bought five times its usual amount of fish. Tuesday, the buyer canceled the opening scheduled that evening for District Two.

“Everybody’s got their limit and we’re at our limit, physically,” Jack Schultheis said. He manages Kwik’Pak Fisheries in Emmonak.

The 12-hour opening targeted fall chum salmon, which sold for 60 cents a pound. And for the first time since 2011, any kings caught could be sold as well for a whopping $5.50 per pound.

The opening infused hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pocketbooks of fishermen on the lower river. One of those fishermen was Matty Beans.

Beans is from St. Mary’s, which is in District Two where the opening was canceled. The day before, he’d boated with his fishing partner to District One.

“Fishing last night was great,” Beans said. “We had six totes of chums, roughly about 4,000 pounds.”

And one king salmon.

The trip took four hours each direction, over 70 miles in harsh weather.

“35 mph wind in mist rain, and hard rain, and rain that makes your eyes squint,” Beans said.

Most fishermen in District Two didn’t spend the time and fuel going out. They were planning on fishing in their district the following day. So why close the opening?

“Yeah, we just got close to half a million pounds of fish, and we just don’t have the capacity to safely handle another opening,” Schultheis said.

After another buyer dropped out this summer, Kwik’Pak became the only company buying fish.

“Being able to take the fish where we’re not going to have quality issues or spoilage, and all our tender boats are loaded up,” Schultheis said. “To turn those boats around, I mean, it’s just too much for us.”

When the opening in District Two of the Yukon was canceled Tuesday, just hours before it was to begin, fishermen upriver who had not made the drive down the day before had no choice but to stay on shore.

“Communities of Pilot Station, Mountain Village, St. Mary’s, Pitka’s Point, Marshall, Russian Mission, we’re all in the district. None of us are going to be able to fish today,” Beans said. “Well that’s a couple grand we’re going to miss out on tonight. It’s going to affect us buying school clothes for [six] kids, putting more food on the table, stock up on heating fuel.”

Fishermen across District Two have seen a decline in their ability to sell fish during commercial openings after the single buyer in their district, Boreal, never opened. Kwik’Pak sends a few tenders upriver during openings, but those can fill up with the catch from just a few fishermen.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that more openings are likely this season.