A number of Alaskan rivers have been closed to king salmon fishing after considerable numbers of the fish failed to return to spawn.
The king salmon is a favorite meal for many Alaskans, but the fish’s low population has left many Yukon River smokehouses without their signature dish.
“It is going to be a tough winter, no two ways about it,” said Leslie Hunter, a 67-year-old store owner and commercial fisherman from Marshall, Alaska.
State and federal biologists are studying the problem.
This year’s low population follows weak runs last summer and in 2007.
Scientists believe a shift in Pacific Ocean currents may be preventing the king salmon from returning to spawn, but the availability of food, predator-prey relationships, and changing river conditions could also be impacting the population.
Residents along the Yukon River blame pollock fishery, which removes nearly 1 million tons of pollock from the eastern Bering Sea each year. The removal’s wholesale value is nearly $1 billion.
King salmon often get caught in the large pollock trawl nets, and are then thrown back into the ocean, or donated to the needy.
“We do know for a fact that the pollock fishery is slaughtering wholesale and wiping out the king salmon stocks out there that are coming into all the major tributaries,” said Nick Andrew Jr., executive director of the Ohagamuit Traditional Council.
“The pollock fishery is taking away our way of living,” he told the AP.
In 2007, nearly 120,000 king salmon were incidentally caught in trawl nets. Nearly 78,000 of those fish were believed to be headed for western Alaska rivers.
Efforts have been made to try and reduce the numbers of king caught in trawl nets, but all labors had to be rethought when the 2007 incident happened.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages ocean fish, passed a hard cap on the pollock fishery in April. In 2011, the fleet which participates in the program is allowed 60,000 kings a year. If they reach the number they must quit trawling for pollock.
The dwindling king population is damaging village economies along the Yukon River, where floods have already swept away homes and other belongings.
“It is crippling the economy in all of the rivers where we depend on commercial fishing for income,” Andrew said.
According to Diana Stram, fishing coordinator at the council, bycatch is only one reason the king salmon are disappearing.
Herman Savikko, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist agrees saying that changing ocean currents, plankton blooms, and river conditions are also impacting the populations.
Not much is known about what happens to the king salmon while they are in the ocean, Savikko said.
Kwik’pak Fisheries in Emmonak normally employs up to 300 people, but has only 30 employees this year.
Jack Schultheis, the company’s general manager said when the king fishery was shut down, the summer chum salmon run was shortened as well.
Fishermen in the region used to receive up to $10 million from the fishery, but only $1.1 million was given out last year.
In the 1970s, fishermen could make up to $30,000, but are now only making a few thousand and live in villages where fuel is $8 a gallon and milk is $15 a gallon, Schultheis said.
“For 50 years, it was an extremely stable fishery,” he added.