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Federal manager for Yukon River highlights resiliency in the face of salmon crashes

Whitefish, sheefish and other species that swim in the Yukon are being targeted for subsistence more and more as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game continues to restrict salmon species for subsistence on the Yukon river.
Emily Schwing
Whitefish, sheefish, and other species that swim in the Yukon River are being targeted for subsistence more and more as state and federal fisheries managers continue to restrict salmon species for subsistence.

When federal fisheries managers rescinded control of the Yukon River on Sept. 2, it marked the close of another season of alarmingly poor salmon runs and few opportunities to harvest them. Nets went unused and smokehouses went unfilled, yet subsistence remains a necessity and a way of life for many living along the nearly 2,000-mile river that extends deep into Canada.

Fortunately, in an attempt to understand what is happening to Yukon River salmon, traditional knowledge and Western science have been increasingly intersecting.

"I love the coordination we have with the stakeholder groups, with the tribes," said Holly Carroll, the Yukon River federal subsistence fisheries manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The more of that coordination you have, the more buy-in you have to the data that is collected."

Carroll said that she values keeping lines of communication open.

"If we all believe the data, it makes it a whole lot easier to  manage," Carroll said. "If we don't believe the data, or we don't trust how you go about things, then why would we listen?" 

Carroll spent the summer as the face of federal salmon fishing restrictions on the Yukon River.

"I always say if you're not hearing about fishing, or you're not hearing about it in your community, give me a call," Carroll said.

Holly Carroll, the Yukon River federal subsistence fisheries manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Holly Carroll, the Yukon River federal subsistence fisheries manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hearing first-hand accounts of the challenges faced along the river has given Carroll a sense of the ways that people are adapting to a situation where they are now more reliant on non-salmon species and other seasonal harvests. Lately, there has been little positive news about the two species of salmon the Yukon River is known for.

"The chinook have been chronically low or chronically poor for the last decade or so. So we've become kind of more accustomed to regulating those changing expectations to harvest something else instead of those," Carroll said. "But that something else has been reliably chum, and now that's gone for people."

The summer chum salmon did ultimately meet escapement goals and became fishable for a short window of time, but it wasn’t easy.

"Fishermen were dealing with high gas prices, horrible storms, flooding early in the season," Carroll said. "I don't think there was much that was easy this year. But if a handful of families did get to go out and get some summer chum, then that's a huge improvement over the last couple of years."

This year’s summer chum opening was highly restricted. Unlike the Kuskokwim River, where families could use gillnets as long as 300 feet, subsistence users on the Yukon River were limited to dip nets, beach seines, hook and line gear, and manned fish wheels. People had to make tough choices.

"There's just lots of resiliency out there. I think it would be great to focus on that," Carroll said. "Because I think the sad refrain of 'lowest runs on the Yukon' or 'total closures on the Yukon,' I think that's just really starting to bum people out."

Managers continue to look at the factors that might be driving the low salmon returns. One of them might be disease, such as ichthyophonus. They’re sampling the river for that, but Carroll said that it hasn’t always been easy, pointing, for instance, to the poor catch they had on a fish wheel near Fort Yukon.

"That wheel fished all day and would catch maybe two or three fish. And it was just painful to see how few fish there really were in the river," Carroll said. "Because the fish abundance was so low, we didn't meet our sample size. But we were able to get an important number of samples to try to help understand whether ichthyophonus has got a similar kind of severity that we see at other sites." 

Carroll keeps on stressing clear and open communication and collaboration with the communities so that people understand what is happening and why restrictions are in place.

"Right now, the situation we're seeing is, it's depressing, the fact that there's no fishing, but hopefully it's not confusing," Carroll said. "And so I think continuing to collaborate and communicate well is just a win-win. Why would you not?"

While the fate of Yukon River salmon is more uncertain than ever, Carroll said that she has been inspired by the resilience of those who depend on them as a way of life and is hopeful that 2024 will bring new insights.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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