As fish managers attempted preserve the Yukon River king salmon last summer, commercial chum fisherman tried out some new gear. They used dip nets and beach seine gear by emergency order during the many king salmon closures. They brought in nearly 200,000 fish, but some say that’s not enough for their income, or for the future of the fishery.
A proposal from the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association would allow purse seine gear. They argued that the dipnets used last summer are inefficient and too many chums are escaping to spawn. The Board of Fish earlier this month found that it is indeed an emergency by a 4-3 vote. This added the proposal to their March agenda.
Gene Sandone is a former state biologist and a consultant for YDFDA, the group pushing the gear change. He says last summer’s experiment was a good start, but doesn’t full address the economic or biological needs.
“The dipnets I think prevented a disaster, they are extremely inefficient gear,” said Sandone.”Participation was fairly low during the midpoint of the run.”
Over 1.6 million summer chums were missed in the harvest last year, and a good 2.6 million were counted as escapement. Sandone points to research that says that too many chums escaping upriver could be detrimental to future runs. The return curve drops off as you approach 2 million.
“Because of basically limitations in the Yukon, if you put 2 million fish on the spawning ground you may get 2 million back, so it’s basically a return per spawner of one or less, so you may get less fish back than you put on the spawning ground,” said Sandone.
YDFDA and Fish and Game experimented with purse seines last summer, all powered by hand. There’s not a history of that gear type on the Yukon.
“We said why not, let’s give it a try, see if it’s doable,” said Sandone. “We had no idea whether we could do it in the river with the currents, the tides the snags, proved that we could do and we want to give it a try.”
Sandone points to plans on the Columbia river in Washington for banning gillnets and using purse seines instead. That allows for the release of king salmon without much stress. Sandone says he believes the board wants to do something to help Yukon fisherman.
“Based on the test fishing we did last year I’m convinced we can release any non-target fish alive back into the river. With purse seins, they’re much more efficient than dip nets and I suspect we could put a dent into the large surplus of summer chum salmon next year if the board approves the proposal,” said Sandone.
Commercial fisherman could stand to benefit. Lower Yukon fisherman earned under 2 million dollars last year in the summer chum fishery. They gave up more than 4 million dollars in forgone harvests.