Salmon are expected to show up in the Yukon River in just a few weeks, and biologists say that fishermen can expect a similar or slightly higher number of kings in the river than last year. They predict a run size of 168,000 to 241,000 kings this summer.
“This current outlook is similar to last year,” said Holly Carroll, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's manager of the Yukon River’s summer king and chum runs. “The midpoint for this year is about 204,000. So if it comes in at the low end, it will be similar to last year.”
The Yukon River is unusual because there is a commercial market for its chums, a species of Alaska salmon that is not usually caught and sold. Carroll says that it's the huge number of chums that makes that market possible.
“An average run size is about 2 million. We’re expecting a run size of close to 2 million again this year, so there is always an available harvestable surplus for commercial. So it’s just easier to keep those markets going. Whereas the Chinook (king salmon) runs, which have been declining, we’ve all but lost the commercial fishery off the Chinook run.”
The king salmon run is still big enough, Carroll says, to support a healthy subsistence fishery this year.
Those pursuing the summer chums with gillnets can also keep any kings they that catch for personal use. If enough kings arrive to meet subsistence and escapement needs later in the season, managers can allow kings caught commercially to be sold. Carroll says that it would have to be a really big run for that to happen.
"It’s pretty unlikely to occur in most years,” she said. “And typically, if it does occur, it’s going to be in the fall season when the kings are just trickling in alongside fall chum.”
There have been some regulatory changes in the Yukon River fishery. The Alaska Board of Fish has decided to include dipnets as a subsistence gear type, and subsistence fishermen get to keep the king salmon caught in dipnets. Carrol says that the rules only changed for the subsistence fishing. The requirement to release the kings alive remains in place for the commercial fleet, which also uses dipnets in the beginning of the summer on the Yukon River.
“So it won’t be different for the commercial fleet. They don’t get to start keeping kings in that gear. It’s only the subsistence fleet that gets to keep their salmon in their dipnets.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to begin test fishing at the mouth of the Yukon at the end of the month.