Demise of Yukon River Chum Salmon Remains Point of Contention

Headed and gutted sockeye salmon purchased by the state of Alaska from Copper River Seafoods being delivered by Kwik’Pak Fisheries in Emmonak to residents of Alaska Native villages on the Lower Yukon River. Photo courtesy of Kwik’Pak Fisheries LLC.

On a cool, cloudy summer day at Emmonak, on Alaska’s Lower Yukon River, not a single commercial fishing boat was delivering its catch to Kwik’Pak Fisheries.

Instead, families along the lower Yukon were awaiting delivery of state-donated sockeye salmon being sent to them by Kwik’Pak, a subsidiary of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, which had received a fresh batch of some 5,000 pounds of sockeyes. Another 6,800 pounds of sockeyes, also purchased by the state of Alaska from a processor, were delivered to the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, for delivery to communities along the upper Yukon River. 

The problem with the demise of Yukon River chums, known for their rich Omega-3 oils, dates back to 2020. When the fish didn’t show up in numbers justifying any harvests, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) shut down all commercial, personal use and subsistence fishing on the Yukon, Kwik’Pak General Manager Jack Schultheis said.

Since then, every year has gotten worse, he commented.

“I’ve been involved in commercial fishing for 49 years on the Yukon and this situation now is at crisis level,” he said, adding that the Yukon salmon runs are on the verge of extinction. The state, he said, appears to be favoring policies that allow runs like those in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region to be sacrificed for the benefit of overall strong stocks.

ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent Lang acknowledged that in-river users believe one cause of the depressed runs is intercept of chum salmon in Alaska Peninsula fisheries.

“These fisheries are traditional mixed stock fisheries,” Vincent-Lang said. “During June, they harvest some chum salmon destined to western Alaska rivers. After June, few chum of western Alaska origin are harvested in these fisheries. Last year, over 1.2 million chum were harvested during the June fisheries along the Alaska Peninsula. This was significantly higher than in previous years and above the average of about 550,000 chum. The high harvest was a surprise because of issues related to confidentiality of catches.”

The commissioner said that ADF&G knows from past studies that a large number of the harvested chums are not of western Alaska origin. The most recent study conducted on the South Peninsula June fishery chum salmon harvest, the Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Program (WASSIP), used genetic stock identification to show harvest rates in the South Alaska Peninsula June fishery of Coastal Western Alaska (CWAK) chum salmon from 0.3-4.6% of the total CWAK chum salmon run.

Most of the chum harvested are of Asian and local origin. After June nearly all the western Alaska chum have passed through the area and only Yukon fall chum remain, which are harvested at very low rates.

Based on this information, the department chose to not employ its emergency order authority nor did the Board of Fisheries call for a special meeting, Vincent-Lang said.

“Instead we worked with the fishermen and processor to reduce chum harvest,” he commented. “These efforts have been successful.”

The total chum season harvest to date for 2022 is 529,702, Vincent -Lang noted in a July 18 email.

“This is compared to 1,168.601 chum salmon to date in 2021 and the 10-year average of 500,266 chum salmon to date,” he wrote.

Kiley Thompson, president of the Area M Seiners Association, engaged in correspondence with the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and acknowledged that the situation in the AYK is heartbreaking. He wrote, though, that the 2007-2009 Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Program results produced by ADF&G do not suggest that Area M fisheries are the primary or even secondary reason for poor chum returns to the AYK.

Thompson said that Area M fishermen were taking voluntary actions to minimize any potential impact their harvesting may have on AYK chums.

“Salmon declines are complex and maintaining a commitment to an accurate representation of data and science is essential to ensuring that stakeholder expectations remain reasonable and management actions targeted and effective,” Thompson said. “Lastly, while we empathize with your communities and are taking significant voluntary actions to minimize (the) impact we may have on AYK chums, we think it is important to note that lead ADF&G scientists do not believe that catch of chums in Area M, or bycatch in the Bering Sea Pollock fishery are a major contributor to AYK salmon declines.”

Schultheis and others also found troubling that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) continues to certify all Alaska salmon fisheries as sustainable, when no fishing for salmon is allowed on the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers due to low-run returns.

Standards for certification by the MSC are similar to those of the Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) program in Alaska, operated by the Certified Seafood Collaborative. A big issue for both in certifying whether a fishery is sustainable is not whether a fishery has a harvestable surplus every season, but whether it is managed for sustainability, which may mean shutting down a fishery until there are enough fish reproducing to allow the stock to continue indefinitely.

According to Jackie Marks, a spokesperson for MSC in Washington D.C., there is a valid reason why the council has certified fisheries that don’t have sufficient runs to allow for commercial or subsistence fisheries.

“The Alaska salmon fishery is currently certified because it meets all requirements in the MSC Fisheries Standard,” Marks said.

When any fishery seeks assessment counter to the MSC Fishery standard, it does so through a fishery client, an individual, organization or group of organizations that make a formal application for their fishery to be assessed, and if successful, to achieve certification to the MSC Fishery Standard.

“A fishery client is responsible for choosing which areas to assess, and if successful achieve certification to the MSC Fishery Standard. MSC is not involved in any of these decisions, nor in the assessment or certification of fisheries, as assessment and certification is conducted by a third-party accredited assessor,” she explained.

For Alaska salmon, the fishery client is the Alaska Fishery Development Foundation (AFDF), and all Pacific salmon species are currently MSC certified. 

Fishery clients are responsible for entering into a legal contract with an accredited assessor and funding the cost of certification. They also must ensure the certification body is aware of stakeholders that should be contacted and that the assessment team has unrestricted access to data and information about the fishery. They must follow up by implementing any improvements called for when the MSC certificate is issued.

Similar guidelines are posted for Responsible Fisheries Management, a third-party certification program for wild-capture fisheries that stemmed from a partnership between the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Alaska seafood industry. The program is now outside of the institute, under management of the Certified Seafood Collaborative, managed by Jeff Regnart, a former top official with ADF&G.

With the RFM program, as with MSC, the issue is not whether a fishery has a harvestable surplus every season, but its approach to sustainability.

“Responsible and sustainable management does not mean that downturns in stock abundance will never happen,” AFDF Executive Director Julie Decker said. “Many factors that affect a stock’s abundance are outside of the control of fishery managers. The important factor in responsible and sustainable management is that commercial fishing is restricted, or closed altogether, when stock abundance is down.”

Signs of such management, she said, include whether personnel make responsible decisions when faced with reduced stocks and if commercial fishermen accept and abide by those decisions to reduce fishing, be it commercial, charter or sport, when abundance is down.

Retired Southeast Alaska contractor Eric Forrer grew up in the Lower Yukon area of rural Alaska, where his parents were Bureau of Indian Affairs teachers. He said the drop in fish populations in major rivers is an existential ecological loss that will have wide-ranging catastrophic consequences in any number of arenas.

“These include the historic village salmon culture, the ocean nutrient transfer all the way to the headwaters, the loss of the major food source for countless other species, and the historic health pattern of both oceans and rivers.” said Forrer, who has also fished commercially. “So I guess I represent a broad public interest.”

Forrer said he is planning a lawsuit regarding the Yukon Delta fish issues. A draft of the litigation identifies the Yukon River itself as a continent-sized riverine ecosystem with over 150 listed tributaries, some of them major rivers in their own right, each hosting salmon runs dependent on the source of the main stem.

Forrer argues that the state has failed the constitutional mandate to achieve sustained yield on a broad scale, especially  in the case of the salmon resources in the Yukon River.

A stumbling block in Yukon River fish management and game management generally is that there is no baseline, he said. Testimony about big runs of the past is dismissed as hearsay, with managers using modern data as a measure for all the decades and centuries that went before, depending on numbers derived from sonar technology over the last 40 years.

“If they took historic reality into account, they would have to recognize losses that are existentially immense and from which there is only one conclusion—management efforts since the ‘60s have failed,” he wrote in the draft litigation document.