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State grants commercial fishing for silvers on lower Yukon

Jill Burke

salmonyukonFour days after he pitched a "crazy" idea to the state, Emmonak fisherman Nick Tucker Sr. is getting his wish: one last chance to earn money catching salmon before winter hits.

The outspoken village elder learned of the news Saturday after returning home early in the morning from a moose hunt. The  announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish Game was so unexpected that Tucker at first did a double-take. "I had to read it twice to make sure it's real," he says.

Commercial fishing for coho, or silver salmon, in the fall on the lower Yukon isn't unusual. But it is when other fish in the river aren't returning as planned. On Sunday, Tucker and other fishermen will get six hours to go after silvers.

This year the fall chum run is shaping up to be the worst on record, and fishery managers had warned any commercial fishing on what could be one of the best silver runs on record was a long shot at best, since the state's first priority is getting enough fish --  in this case, chum -- to return to their spawning grounds.

That all changed last week. Under pressure from fisherman like Tucker and the local fish processor, Kwik'Pak Fisheries, the state had a change of heart.

"We recognized that this is somewhat of a unique scenario that's being put in place here that the management plan may not be addressing," says Jeff Linderman, regional supervisor for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Region of the Division of Commericial Fisheries.

Linderman says the main question he and others have spent the last few days wrestling with is how much impact fishing for silvers would have on the number of chum still headed to their spawning grounds. With the bulk of the historically weak chum run thought to have already passed, Linderman says the department is optimistic that any incidental take will be negligible.

After consulting with the state lawyers, Fish and Game decided to go ahead and open a six-hour commercial period for silvers Sunday on the lower Yukon River. Any additional openings will depend on how many Chum are incidentally pulled in with the catch.  "Our approach to this situation is still very cautious," Linderman says.

Speaking by phone from his home in Emmonak, Tucker says it's "good news." He'll spend today mending his net to get ready for six hours of fishing Sunday.

The $1 per pound silvers fetch could mean a welcome financial boost for successful fisherman. A 100 fish load will mean an extra $700, and that will help cover costs for fall moose, whale and seal hunts as families prepare for the long winter. With villagers often sharing harvests among their extended families, Tucker says a few hundred dollars can go a long way.

Jack Schultheis, general manager for Kwik'Pak Fisheries, calls the commercial opportunity a relief and says Emmonak is bustling with fisherman eager to get on the water.

For his part, Tucker - a strong voice for those living in the lower Yukon region of western Alaska -- is pleased his call to action was not only heard but acted upon by state fisheries managers.

"This is the way things should work," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill@alaskadispatch.com