For many people living along the lower Yukon river, commercial fishing is their primary income. After the Yukon summer chum salmon arrived late and weak this year, the fishing season that just started is about to come to an end.
The summer chum run doesn’t last long: about a month and a half from early June to mid-July. During that time, over 1.2-million chum salmon swim up the Yukon River. Fishermen usually start selling their catches the first week of June, with openings occurring almost daily. This year, that didn’t happen. Instead, commercial openings started on July 3—less than two weeks before the season ends on July 15.
For most of the summer, the summer chum run tracked below the notorious chum crash in 2000. The run didn’t start building in any significant way until late June, when it shot up high enough to allow for commercial harvests.
But for many commercial fishermen, it was too late. They can’t afford to fish.
“We don’t go firefighting. We don’t have tourism. We don’t have mining. All we have is our commercial fishery,” Emmonak resident John LaMont told Yukon fishery stakeholders on a teleconference earlier this week. By that point, commercial fishermen had had only four openings to catch and sell chum salmon.
“We always used that economic benefit to maintain our way of life," he said. "This summer, with four openings and very few fishermen going out there, there’s going to be a lot of hurt.”
To alleviate that hurt, managers are loosening the rules. There are enough surplus summer chum salmon in the Yukon River for fishermen to sell hundreds of thousands of fish, but with a month-and-a-half long fishing season reduced to a less than two weeks, managers say there's no way they’ll be able to harvest all that surplus.
With most of the king salmon already upriver, managers are allowing commercial fishermen to use gillnets during these openings, instead of just dipnets and beach seines. Any king salmon caught in those nets can be sold along with the chum.
This is a big deal. Yukon king salmon were sold for one day in 2017. Before that, it hadn’t happened since 2010. For decades, the Yukon River has been under tight restrictions to rebuild its king salmon population throughout both its American and Canadian tributaries. An international treaty sets the total number of kings that can be taken in both countries. This summer the river saw its highest king run in five years, a sign of progress.
Now that king run in the Lower Yukon is coming to an end. Biologists estimate that about 95 percent of kings have passed through the lower waters. Research shows that the kings headed all the way to Canada are the first to swim up the river, and any kings in the lower districts this late in the season are bound for U.S. waterways.
Managers say that selling the kings caught in commercial chum gear will not hurt the run of kings swimming up the Yukon to Canada. They estimate that at most, only a few hundred kings would be sold. Also, kings sell for significantly more than chum. The opportunity will give fishermen in the lower river a chance to earn a little extra cash.
Many will need it. Managers are already expecting a weak fall chum run to follow.