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13 Western Alaska tribal and fishing organizations ask Alaska Peninsula fishery to shut down to protect chum salmon

A freshly cut Kuskokwim River chum salmon on June 6, 2018.
Petra Harpak
A freshly cut Kuskokwim River chum salmon on June 6, 2018.

Thirteen organizations representing subsistence and commercial salmon fishermen in Western Alaska have signed a joint letter asking a fishery along the coast of the Alaska Peninsula to shut down during the month of June to prevent it from harvesting chum salmon bound for Western Alaska rivers. Chum salmon stocks crashed to record lows last year, and the letter writers fear that another low return this summer could push the chum past the point of recovery.

There are many theories about why the chum crashed. One of the most talked about on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers is that the salmon are being intercepted by commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea.

Thirteen fishing and tribal organizations are asking a group of those fishermen to voluntarily forgo harvesting salmon during the month of June. These fishermen are along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain, in state fishing district Area M. The purse seiner fishery targets sockeye salmon, but incidentally intercepts chum as well.

In June 2021, this fishery harvested 1,168,601 chum salmon, according to state data. Genetic data from 2007 to 2009 shows that in some areas, the majority of chum caught in this fishery were heading towards Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Arctic rivers.

Executive Director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association Karen Gillis wrote the letter to the purse seiners. She acknowledged that a voluntary shutdown would economically hurt their fishery, but believes it’s a necessary sacrifice.

“What we see is that they're feeding their families based on their commercial catches, and the people in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions are not able to feed their families at all. So it's a compromise,” Gillis said.

Chum salmon once reliably filled nets in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. But last year, Yukon River fishermen could not harvest any salmon; runs were too low to open subsistence or commercial fishing opportunities. Over 1.5 million summer chum and about 1 million fall chum on average once returned to the Yukon each year. But in 2021, those numbers fell to about less than a tenth of the usual run.

On the Kuskokwim River, many fishermen reported catching only two or three chum all season. Chum on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim did not meet escapement goals, and runs are expected to be low again this year.

The crashes prompted U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to issue federal disaster declarations for the 2020 Kuskokwim River salmon fishery and the 2020 and 2021 Yukon River salmon fisheries.

Gillis and her fellow co-signers on the letter believe this summer is critical for the species’ survival.

“We believe that if the chum that are passing through the Area M fishery aren't able to make it to the spawning grounds again, it would be hard to imagine a recovery at that point,” she said.

The letter is addressed to President of the Area M Seiners Association Kiley Thompson. Thompson told KYUK that the group had no comment on the letter at this time.

The letter is signed by leaders at the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the Association of Village Council Presidents, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Calista Corporation, Coastal Villages Region Fund, Kawerak Inc., Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Tribal Government, Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.

Another letter has been sent to Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, asking the state to act to protect Arctic, Yukon, and Kuskokwim [AYK] chum salmon if the purse seiner fleet does not shut down. This letter is signed by the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.

“If ADF&G does not limit June commercial harvest opportunities within Area M, the ensuing unmitigated interception of AYK-bound chum all but assures the destruction of AYK Region economies and traditional subsistence lifestyles, and places the entire burden of conservation on the shoulders of AYK Region subsistence users. The survival of our communities depends upon ADF&G’s intervention,” the letter reads.

Vincent-Lang wrote in response to the letter: “Much effort is underway to reduce the harvest of AYK chum in the [Alaska] peninsula fisheries.” He said that he would release more information on those efforts next week.

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
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