Fishery disasters and brave, brave decisions….

“Disaster Declared: Alaska’s Yukon River Chinook Salmon Run Fails

That’s the headline from a few weeks ago: Jan. 18, 2010 out of Washington, D.C.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke made the announcement:

“Communities in Alaska along the Yukon River depend heavily on Chinook salmon for commercial fishing, jobs and food,” said Locke on Friday. “I have determined that a fishery disaster has occurred due to consecutive years of low Chinook salmon returns. Alaska fishermen and their families are struggling with a substantial loss in income and revenues.”

The Yukon River once hosted the largest migrating Chinook, chum, and coho Pacific salmon stocks in the world.

Two days ago a headline from the Vancouver Sun reads: “Alaska imposes restrictions on Yukon River chinook” .

As a follow-up to the “fishery disaster” announcement:

Alaska has imposed controversial restrictions on gillnets [one inch smaller net size] to give the biggest salmon a better chance to reach their traditional spawning grounds on the Canadian side of the river.

Maybe I’m just extra cynical today – but holy cow (or holy net) in this case. The bravery involved in this decision is remarkable!

Reduce nets by one inch in size so bigger fish can get through. Wow, this will “save the salmon”.

I wonder if policy and decision-makers recognize that the biggest fish of zero fish – is still zero?

The decision, which has sparked complaints from some Alaskans for whom the annual chinook catch is an economic staple, follows years of concern in both countries that the resource was being fished out of existence in the U.S. before the species could replenish itself in Canadian waters east of the Alaska-Yukon border.

So how bad is it?

Well there was no commercial fishery for Chinook¬† in 2009 on the Yukon. In 2008 the fishery was 89% lower than the five year average. Plus subsistence harvests were also limited. Yes, that’s subsistence as in the word defined as: “A means of subsisting, especially means barely sufficient to maintain life.”

US Geological Survey

Salmon are vital to people living on the over 3200 km long Yukon River. There are over ninety First Nation and Inuit communities on the Yukon River, and numerous settler communities and families that also rely on the yearly return of salmon. And, yet, there are not a lot of salmon migrating up the Yukon as compared to more southerly salmon rivers.

It is also complicated on the Yukon River as the river crosses international boundaries. In my work for a Yukon First Nation in the early 2000s I learned a lot about the complexities of looking after salmon throughout the watershed. Estimates suggest close to 80% of the salmon on the Yukon, spawn in Canada, yet for decades through the 1960s through 90s a huge proportion of salmon runs were caught in the U.S. in Alaska or in Bering Sea fisheries.

In 2001, while working in the Yukon between Leg 1 and Leg 2 of¬† The Wild Salmon Cycle, I wrote an article for the Yukon News “Starving Streams are part of a Vicious Cycle“. In my research for that article I looked at salmon catch data for the Yukon River:

The total Alaskan and Canadian catch of Yukon River Chinook, chum and coho salmon from 1973 to 1997 (when conservation and salmon declines became a major issue) was 1,559,342 salmon per year. That includes a high of 2,514,977 salmon in 1988.

In 2000 the total catch of salmon was 183,000 salmon, and yet only 12,000 Chinook salmon made it to the spawning grounds.

Gee, only 12,000 Chinook to the spawning grounds in 2000 – could there possibly be a link to the low numbers eight and nine years later – and hence a “fishery disaster” ?

I don’t know – I’m not a fisheries scientist… more like a gumboot biologist. However, I think I can count.

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