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Scientists are predicting another year of low chum and Chinook returns on the Yukon River

Empty boats line the shore in St. Mary's after a summer with next to no subsistence salmon fishing on the Yukon River.
Olivia Ebertz

Last week, Alaskan and Canadian biologists and salmon managers met to share their forecasts and management recommendations for Yukon River chum and Chinook salmon. It’s looking like another year of low returns.

In 2021, the Yukon River saw unprecedented low chum salmon runs. This meant that subsistence fishing was closed while the salmon were running, and fish camps and freezers sat empty. The only commercial salmon processor on the Yukon, Kwik’pak Fisheries, couldn’t buy salmon. Kwik’pak usually provides steady summer income for Yukon River commercial fishermen and factory workers alike. The company could only hire a fraction of its normal amount of workers for its non-salmon endeavors in 2021.

Chinook runs were low on the Yukon in 2021 too, although that’s been the case for years. Unfortunately, it seems like the numbers aren’t looking much better in 2022.

Last week, the Yukon River Panel met to discuss run forecasts and management strategies for salmon in summer 2022. The panel is an advisory body that makes management recommendations to governments on both sides of the border.

Managers from both sides have recommended that fishing for salmon be closed this summer. This is both to try to preserve the returning populations, and to try to make escapement goals per the United States' treaty with Canada.

In 2022, scientists predict that slightly more Chinook and chum than last year will cross the border into Canada, though not enough for subsistence or commercial harvesting.

Last year, the Chinook run into Canada was 31,631 salmon, which fell short of the low end of the escapement goal of 42,000 fish. Those fish are counted at the sonar in Eagle, Alaska before they cross the border. This year, scientists are predicting that around 50,000 salmon will cross over the border. But they say there is only a 50/50 chance that those numbers will be accurate. In case numbers fall short of that, managers on both sides intend to close subsistence fishing. The historical average run size that makes it across the border is 55,433 fish.

In the case of summer chum salmon, scientists are predicting that about 330,000 fish will make it to the Pilot Station sonar. That’s a little more than double last year’s record low run of 153,497 summer chum, but it’s still well below the low end of the escapement goal of 500,000 summer chum. It’s also far below the average run size of over 1.6 million summer chum.

Scientists are also predicting that the fall chum run will be slightly larger than last year’s, though also not enough to meet escapement goals. Last year, over 23,170 fish swam past the Eagle sonar into Canada. This year, scientists estimate that 28,000 fish will make it across the border. The fish would need to return in more than double that number in order to make the escapement goal of 70,000 fish.

Once again, subsistence salmon fishermen up and down the Yukon will have to find alternative ways to fill their freezers this summer, and commercial fishermen will have to find new ways to fill their wallets.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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