Biologists fear salmon slump will continue

Posted: Tuesday, June 06, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are bracing for another year of poor salmon returns on the Yukon and Tanana rivers.

''It doesn't look good,'' said biologist Dan Bergstrom.

''We're just looking at the trend. We've been down two years with the chinook and three years with chums,'' he said. ''It's more than likely things won't be dramatically different this year.''

That would set the stage for a third straight disastrous season for commercial fishermen on the Yukon River.

While most subsistence fishermen have been able to catch what they need to eat and feed their dogs during the down runs, commercial fishermen have struggled to keep their heads above water.

''What I tell the fishermen I talk to is not to over commit themselves,'' said Dan Senecal-Albrecht, president of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. ''Don't buy new boats, don't buy new motors, don't take on more debt, because you don't want to get burned.''

The first king salmon of the season typically show up at the mouth of the Yukon River in the first week of June and summer chums follow soon after, said Bergstrom. The fall chum run begins in mid-August.

In an average year, fishermen in Alaska and Canada catch about 170,000 kings, about two-thirds of which are netted by commercial fishermen in the lower Yukon River. The rest are caught and used for food by subsistence fishermen. In a good year, the king harvest will approach 200,000.

Last year's king catch was 136,000. That was an improvement over the disastrous chinook run in 1998, when only 105,000 kings were caught, the third-lowest king harvest since statehood.

The summer and fall chum runs have suffered an even more dramatic drop-off. The summer chum run, which numbers 3 to 4 million fish in a good year, hasn't reached the 1 million mark the last two years, the magic number needed to open a roe fishery on the middle Yukon River.

Likewise, the fall chum run has failed to surpass the minimum 675,000 fish needed to open a commercial fishery the last two years. Only about 600,000 fish returned last year and fewer than that came back in 1998.

Biologists believe the poor salmon runs in Western Alaska in recent years are related to changes in the ocean, where salmon spend most of their lives, before returning to freshwater.

Two processors in western Alaska -- Whitney Foods and North Alaska Fisheries -- have closed their doors and another bad fishing year on the Yukon River could drive more fish buyers out of the area, said Senecal-Albrecht.

''These operations on the Yukon River and in Western Alaska are cutting it close to begin with,'' Senecal-Albrecht said. ''There's no reserve for bad years.''

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