Biologists close chum fishing on Yukon ahead of the fish

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has decided not to open fall chum salmon fishing in the Lower Yukon River and its drainages, and it's likely the rest of the river will be closed as well before the fish arrive.

Biologists expect the fall chum run to be as much as 40 percent below the minimum spawning number they think are needed to ensure healthy future runs.

It is the fourth consecutive year that the fishery has been closed, and the future could be bleak.

''That's pretty scary for us,'' said Fred Bue, Fish and Game's Yukon River fall season manager.

Fall chums return from the ocean at the ages of 4 and 5, Bue said. If the fish, a subsistence staple for villagers, fail to return in large numbers next year, it would make a complete cycle of poor runs. Without enough spawners, populations would continue to dwindle.

Ocean survival appears to be lower than in years past, according to the scientists.

''We used to get two fish returning per spawner,'' Bue said. ''Now we get one returner per spawner. Until production turns around, we'll probably be in this trend.''

Fall chum are primarily used in the Interior for feeding sled dogs, though there has been a small commercial fishery in past years.

Fish are a key to maintaining dog teams in villages up and down the 1,200-mile river.

The low fish runs caused villages such as Tanana and Eagle to momentarily grab national attention last year. When word got out that many mushers were considering killing their dogs rather than watching them starve, free food was shipped in by outside manufacturers and others.

Those who depend on the fish also were eligible for state disaster relief two of the last three years. This year, though, it's unlikely the state will step in.

''The governor hasn't declared a disaster, and he probably won't declare one,'' said Mary Pete, subsistence division director for Fish and Game. ''By definition, a disaster is an event that is unexpected. This was not unexpected.''

In each of the previous three seasons, biologists waited to see the early returns before announcing a closure. This year, they cut to the chase after seeing a meager return of summer chums.

The state Board of Fisheries has set a minimum escapement goal of 350,000 fall chums. Biologists now project that just 250,000 fish will return to spawn.

''That's why we're starting with a closure,'' Bue said.

The meager return doesn't give much hope to those who say they rely on the chums to preserve a disappearing lifestyle.

Bill Fliris has fished in the Tanana area for a quarter century and maintains a dwindling dog yard, now 50 percent smaller than a year ago. He said the free commercial food made a ''big difference, in that people here were able to keep dogs through the winter.''

''But people around here don't really want to be the focus of charitable contributions. It's real nice, but people around here want to solve our own problems. If this is going to continue to be a problem, dogs are just going to disappear.''

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