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Residents speak on chinook moratorium at Yukon River Panel

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

The Yukon River Panel, a joint Alaska-Canada salmon advisory organization held a multi-day pre-season meeting last week in Anchorage. Panel members heard presentations and public comments on a range of salmon issues, including a recent Alaska Canada agreement to close chinook salmon fishing for 7 years.

Wednesday’s agenda (April 10) included presentations by biologists on 2024 salmon run forecasts. Deena Jallen with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said another weak return of Yukon River Chinook is anticipated.

“We have a forecast of 45,000 to 68,000 fish, with a median value of 56,000 fish, and as a reminder the 2023 drainage-wide run size for chinook salmon was 58,000 fish, and no escapement goals were met in Alaska or Canada, so we’re anticipating a very low run, similar to last year, or smaller,” Jallen said.

About 40 percent of Yukon River chinook are Canadian origin, and Jallen said the outlook for those stocks is similarly bleak.

“Nineteen thousand to 28,000 fish with median value of 23,000 fish," she said. "And that’s below the border passage objective of 71,000 fish, and the projected border passage could be as low as 9- to 19,000 fish.”

About 15,000 chinook crossed the border last year. An agreement signed by Alaska and Canadian fishery managers last month halts the harvest of chinook on the mainstem of the Yukon, as well as Canadian tributaries, for 7 years in an attempt to rebuild border passage to the 71,000-fish objective.

Panel member Elizabeth MacDonald of Whitehorse spoke in support of the agreement, which includes development of measures to grow back the chinook run, which has been on a downward trajectory for 3 decades.

“If we’re not changing and trying to make things better for them like that rebuilding plan, we are likely looking at the extinction of our chinook," MacDonald said.

During public testimony, Norma Kassi of Whitehorse said the Alaska-Canada chinook harvest moratorium agreement has been many years in the making.

“This is an important step forward, I think," Kassi said. "Our ancient ways always have to have a place, and our ways is to leave a place alone if the animals are declining.”

Kassi, who directs an Indigenous research organization, talked about a new program that will educate a group of young people from Canada and Alaska about traditional knowledge as well as western science and politics to better understand salmon and what threatens them.

“To learn about climatic changes and what has happened to our spawning grounds and in the oceans," Kassi said. "They will look at the hydro dams, mining industry, sports fishing, as well as large scale commercial trawling.”

Alaska-side upper river fisher Carrie Stevens underscored that local people stopped harvesting chinook years ago, and said broader measures are needed.

“We are already standing down," Stevens said. "The numbers are not changing, and it is the nation state’s attempt to not address further issues: the trawling, Area M.”

The Yukon River Panel wrapped up its preseason meeting Thursday. It plans to reconvene in the fall to work on development of the chinook rebuilding plan required by the Alaska-Canada agreement.

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