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Lame Yukon River king salmon return worries Canadians

Jill Burke
Photo courtesy: Doug Karlberg, Yukon Gold Fisheries

The stress people feel as a result of declining king salmon runs in the mighty Yukon River is a shared burden along the entire river system, a lifeline that pulses across international boundaries. When times are tough, as it is this year, both Alaskans and Canadians take a hit. 

As the 2012 king salmon run nears its close, Canadians are confronting what Alaskans have dealt with most of the summer: poor runs, leaving fewer fish to harvest. 

By the start of August, only 28,000 kings had reached the sonar counter in Eagle, Alaska, a village in Alaska along the Yukon River near the Canadian border. An international agreement between users in both countries calls for at least 42,500 Chinook salmon to cross into Canada.

Failure to meet that goal won't result in formal sanctions. The Yukon River Salmon Agreement is a component of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, but the treaty does not specify how Yukon River salmon should be managed nor lay out penalties for failing to do so. Instead, the treaty authorizes the two countries to work cooperatively on managing the fish, which cross the international border twice in their lifetime -- if they survive all the perils salmon face.

An international group of U.S. and Canadian stakeholders implement the agreement through the Yukon River Panel, which oversees management strategies, sets escapement goals, and manages money set aside for research.

'A shared burden'

"This is a shared burden across the river. Communities are working together. It is not just one side or the other," said Craig Fleener, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a former co-chair of the Yukon River Panel. "When you get in a tough situation, and it's been tough for a while, people on the Yukon River pull together to make things work."

In 2012, the low king salmon run has meant lost fishing opportunities for commercial fisherman and indigenous subsistence users in Alaska. Similar conservation efforts are underway in Canada, where First Nations are asking citizens to voluntarily limit their catch, on top of closures in effect for commercial and recreational users.

Russell Blackjack, a fish and wildlife technician for the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation said during an emergency community meeting that fewer than half the kings expected have arrived, according to the Canadian news outlet CBC. “…There's very, very little. We won't stop people from fishing. What we're asking is that people be careful."

Canada seeks to get 30,000 fish across its border. That's out of about 107,000 kings that passed the first in-river sonar counter at Pilot Station, just 130 miles from the mouth of the 1,980-mile river, the third-longest in the U.S. As recently at 2009, about 150,000 kings headed upriver.  

If 30,000 kings don't reach Canada, all fishing will be stopped -- even though it will be late in the season. 

Many threats for king fry

Scientists believe about 50 percent of the king salmon entering the Yukon River are bound for Canadian spawning grounds. This year, however, Alaska fish biologists estimate only about 45 percent of the run is headed that way. Young fish called fry born in Canada have a long way to swim before reaching the ocean and they face many threats enroute. But ultimately, it's not known if the dwindling Yukon River king run be traced to problems on the spawning grounds, the river system, the ocean -- or some combination of all three.

Yukon River fishermen and fishery managers spend time weekly during the summer talking what adjustments should be made. With so many attendees, the weekly teleconferences can be lengthy -- but they're worth it, said Hazel Nelson, current co-chair of the Yukon River Panel and Alaska's director of subsistence.

"I recognize that the users along the Yukon River have all made conservation sacrifices for the Yukon River Kings. It is clear. As you listen you can hear the frustration, but the consistent (refrain) is concern about the future runs," she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com