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Amid Strong Commercial Harvest, Some Yukon Fishermen ‘Just Getting Started’ on Subsistence

Chum salmon leaping near Cold Bay, AK. Photo: K. Mueller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A steady stream of fall chum salmon are being caught by fisherman along the Lower Yukon, but many upriver are just now beginning to get their subsistence needs met.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates just over 542,000 fall chum have passed into the river so far this year. That comes as the second large pulse, as many as 140,000 fish, started their migration early last week.

That large pulse is keeping commercial fishermen busy in the lower river. Jeff Estensen, the fall season manager on the Yukon for Fish and Game, said those fish are being managed with an eye to meet the needs of subsistence fishermen farther upstream.

“We are watching this next group of fish that will be coming in. And this will also be the group of fish that will see a lot of subsistence fishermen upriver to be taking subsistence harvest out of,” he said during Tuesday’s teleconference with Yukon River stakeholders, organized by the nonprofit Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. “And so we just kind of take that into account when we’re making decisions on when the pulses are coming in, and try to make decisions on how this pulse is going to be utilized all the way up to the Canadian border.”

During the call, lower river commercial fishermen (in regions officially know as Y1 and Y2 but run from the mouth of the river through communities like Emmonak, Alakanuk, and St. Mary’s) bickered over the length and timing of openings. Meanwhile, fishermen upriver, like Benedict in Koyukuk says he’s still fishing for his own freezer.

“You guys complain when Y1 and Y2 is fishing … we are subsistence fishing for fall chum, it’s down the last two years 60 percent. This year we have only got about five percent fall chum so far,” he scolded.

“So quit complaining about commercial fishing and subsistence fishing!”

Despite mid-river fishermen “just getting started” on their subsistence needs, Fish and Game estimates lower river commercial fishermen have netted more than 118,000 fall chum and over 46,000 silvers in the river this year.

To strike a balance between the commercial needs downriver and the subsistence needs further up, Estensen said subsistence openings are being increased to help fishermen catch what they need.

“We’ve liberalized the subsistence schedule in Districts 4 and 5-A, B, C, and D to seven days a week. And essentially we’ve been doing that just to give everybody on the river as much opportunity to harvest fall chum as possible.”

Those openings appear to be working: drift netters in Kotlik stated they caught 80 fish in an hour, 200 in a night, and similar results were seen in Russian Mission and all the way up to Nulato. Teleconference organizers shrugged when fishermen seemed too busy to call in (“Sounds like everyone’s busy,” they said when few fishermen reported in), while others were clearly getting wrapped up in other action along the river.

“There’s a whale in front of Russian Mission!” a caller interjected, marveling at the marine mammal following fish up the river.

That sight aside, the fall chum season is also giving way to silver salmon in the river. Fish and Game estimates about 67,000 cohos in the river so far this year, a number that will grow through the next month as the fishing season draws to a close.

1 Comment

  1. Albert Oquilluk on August 20, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    The kings and earls, the rulers of the native land and waters that the original people relied on for centuries have gotten their blessing to get fish for themselves. What was one plentiful under the watch of the original people of this land is become scarce under their watch.