As severe restrictions on Chinook salmon continue along the Yukon River this season, early signs of strong chum runs are leading the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to announce some unanticipated commercial openings.
“What is happening is this year we’re have an early, strong chum salmon run in most areas of Norton Sound,” said Scott Kent, ADF&G biologist for the Nome area. “It’s front-loaded in that, it’s hitting hard right now, and then it’s probably going to drop off here considerably in a week or so.”
Kent said that means this next few days in the region are going to be fruitful for fishermen. “We’re going to probably start seeing a lot of fish passage this week and into the weekend.”
Kent said the region is seeing some of the best chum counts on record for this time of year. At the Kwiniuk tower on the North side of Norton Sound, for example, 12,000 chums have already been counted, making this year one of the best runs in the station’s 49 years of operation.
Kent said the strong chum run is especially good news considering the poor pre-season forecasts.
“We were not expected directed openings in Golovin and Elim this year, especially not this early,” he laughed. “So, it’s a pleasant surprise.”
The Norton Sound isn’t the only region in western Alaska seeing strong chum numbers. A three-hour opening Saturday, June 28 lifted gear restrictions in the Lower Yukon and gave some families a much-needed chance to put up chum on their racks.
“Everybody’s real happy for the Y1 and Y2 three-hour six-inch gillnet opening that you guys had,” said Basil Larson from Russian Mission during a weekly Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association teleconference on Tuesday.
Not everyone was able to take advantange of the opening, Larson said, but those who could made it count. “There’s not a lot of families that could afford to go down and go fish for those three hours, but the families that did go down, I talked to them and they are all done with their summer chum subsistence harvest.”
Callers further upriver on the Yukon, like Janet Woods in Rampart, said they are frustrated at having to wait until nearly all the Chinooks have passed just to have a shot at fishing for chums.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting. We can’t even so much put in a net. If you let people fish even one day, that would eliminate all these problems with people getting caught, and getting their fish nets taken away, and having to go to court and pay,” Woods said. “We need to have our fish—that’s what sustains us.”
Fish and Game representatives on the call explained that upriver communities can expect a similar subsistence opening once 90 percent of the Chinook have passed. Which, based on past years, is likely to be some time around July 18.
Kent said that, while the Chinook restrictions have been severe, they do appear to be working.
“The King run is very poor,” he stressed, “but it’s not as dire as we thought it was going to be going into the season. In other words, we think we’ve got a good chance of making our escapement goals because we’ve taken such severe restrictions.”
While making escapement into Canada is an important goal to hit, Kent stressed the run is still significantly below historical levels.
“It doesn’t mean it’s a good run, it doesn’t mean we should pat ourselves on the back yet. But it appears the measures taken across the region are working to conserve Chinook salmon.”
For a full list of ADF&G’s salmon openings in the Norton Sound area can be found on their website.