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Subsistence fishing being halted on Yukon

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The entire Yukon River drainage in Alaska is being closed to subsistence salmon fishing.

The move, effective Wednesday, was announced jointly by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Federal Subsistence Board Tuesday.

''This looks like it could be the worst harvest ever,'' said Tom Kron, regional supervisor for Fish and Game for the Western Alaska region.

''Subsistence fishing families in the middle and upper river will have to forego 75 to 80 percent of their fall chum harvest,'' said Mary Pete, head of the subsistence division of the state Department of Fish and Game. ''It's horrible.''

Subsistence users normally catch between 100,000 and 150,000 fall chums to feed their families and dog teams. The fall chum run is normally 600,000 to 900,000 fish, Kron said, and some runs have exceeded a million.

This year, the run could be 250,000 or even lower, depending on run timing. That would be even less than the disaster year of 1993, when about 300,000 fish came up the river.

The Yukon River Fall Chum Salmon Management Plan calls for an escapement goal of 400,000, with a provision to lower that to 350,000 fish during years with poor runs. Even the lower goal is unlikely to be met.

While fishing for salmon has been stopped, subsistence users can catch whitefish and pike using small mesh nets that reduce incidental salmon catches.

With a good return of silver salmon, managers might allow use of fish wheels with an escape chute that an operator could use to route the chums back into the river, Kron said. And in some tributaries of the lower river, hook-and-line subsistence fishing for silvers might be allowed under state rules. The federal regulations also allow hook-and-line subsistence fishing.

''If we had people getting silvers with nets, they'd be killing chums as well,'' said Pete of the subsistence division.

In any case, there will be a ''big impact on lots of people living along the Yukon River,'' Kron said.

''People are concerned and scared,'' he said. ''The foundation has fallen out for them'' with the loss of the salmon fishing.

In a normal year, subsistence fishermen can be on the rivers four or five days a week. But last month the state cut that fishing time back to two days, and then just one, because of the poor king and summer chum runs. Commercial, personal use and sport fishing were closed in July in response to the poor king and summer chum runs.

The fishing ban will hit villagers on the upper Yukon and Tanana rivers hardest. About 85 percent of the fall chum harvest comes from the upper Yukon and Tanana rivers.

The cause of the low runs is unclear.

''We've been thinking it's a marine survival issue,'' said Kron. ''We're guessing the problems are in the near-shore areas of the Bering Sea. Usually as fish enter the salt water, 70 to 90 percent of the mortality occurs.

''We know there have been changes out there. We've seen huge balloons of milky colored plankton -- so big they show up on satellite images,'' Kron said. ''We've had massive bird die-offs on a number of the beaches.''



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