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With fishing closed, lower Yukon River communities are getting some Chinook and chum salmon from ADF&G projects

Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association technician Mark Tucker checks a set net in the Lower Yukon River test fishery near Emmonak.
ADF&G

Even though fishing is closed for Chinook and summer chum salmon on the Yukon River, there is a way for lower river residents to get some of these fish through the State of Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) targets chum and Chinook salmon through their assessment projects on the lower Yukon River. It operates a test fishery near Emmonak and a sonar site near Pilot Station. Both projects use gillnets to determine the number, species, and size of salmon entering the river.

These projects are the only legal means of targeting Chinook and chum on the Yukon this year. Neither species is expected to meet the goals managers set for fish to escape to their spawning ground, so subsistence fishing has remained closed for a second year. The salmon harvested from these sampling nets are all distributed to lower river residents.

“We try to work through Elders and get them a fish first,” ADF&G Yukon River Fishery Manager Deena Jallen said.

The department gets a list of Elders from local Tribal councils in Emmonak, and from Elders who contact the department. Jallen's staff will also reach out to nearby communities when fish come in. But the few salmon are often not worth the high cost of gas it would take someone to boat over.

“The numbers have been so low, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got three fish. Do you want to boat from Nunam [Iqua] for three fish?’” Jallen said.

So they try to reach out more when they have larger numbers.

In Pilot Station, the Tribal Council distributes Chinook salmon from the sonar project to Elders. The chum are placed in a community bin near the river for anyone to pick up.

So far, the state has distributed about 280 Chinook and 1,000 chum from the projects operated near Emmonak and Pilot Station. The salmon have gone to Alakanuk, Emmonak, Nunam Iqua, and Pilot Station. Some salmon also reached Mountain Village.

“That was kind of serendipitous, because I think folks had come down due to evacuation from the fires and then were going back,” Jallen said.

With runs at record lows for Chinook and near-record lows for chum, the state is trying to strike a balance between maintaining their data collecting projects and reducing the number of salmon harvested. The state is not operating one of its lower river test fish sites this year, and it is releasing any chum found alive back to the water.

The state is retaining Chinook salmon and sampling them for several research projects to determine any health issues that could be contributing to their record low return. Residents who receive these Chinook should expect them to be gutted and have their ear bones removed.

Jallen acknowledged that these salmon are no substitute for subsistence harvests.

“We know that this is not replacing, at all, people’s cultural need for fish, cultural ties to fish. But hopefully this can replace some of the calories that have been lost from people’s diets," she said.

Other organizations are also donating salmon from elsewhere in Alaska to Yukon River residents.

Anna Rose MacArthur is the KYUK News Director. She has worked at KYUK since 2015 and previously worked at KNOM in Nome, Alaska.
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