What's killing the Yukon's salmon?

An ecological mystery in Alaska has scientists and fishermen baffled and alarmed.

  • Chinook salmon numbers in the Yukon River have been in decline since 1998.

    Stephanie Schmidt
  • Biologist Stephanie Schmidt, left, teaches a young girl, center, how to take length measurements on her family’s subsistence caught Chinook salmon with a colleague in 2013. The Yukon River Chinook fishery was closed this year even to subsistence fishermen in response to a faltering fish population.

    Casie Stockdale
  • The Yukon River delta has seen a Chinook salmon run of about 100,000 fish this year, compared to an average of 300,000 as recently as the mid-90s.


When Stephanie Schmidt became Alaska’s Yukon River fishery research biologist in January 2012, she knew that all was not well along the sinuous length of the famed river. Chinook salmon numbers had been dwindling since 1998, and as a result, commercial harvest of the fish — also called king salmon for their immense size and sumptuous meat — was frequently halted. That didn’t help: The 2010 run was the second-worst in recorded history. 2011 was only a few fish better.

Faltering returns also hurt the Yukon’s subsistence fishermen, who catch chinook with nets and fish wheels to feed their families through the long Subarctic winter. But past hardships paled in comparison with 2014, their most difficult season yet. Earlier this spring, Schmidt and her colleagues at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game considered the dismal projections — an estimated fish, pitiful compared to historic runs, which averaged 300,000 as recently as the mid-’90s. Then they made the painful decision to close the Yukon chinook fishery to everyone for the entire summer.

“I don’t want to say it was a no-brainer, because it was very difficult to know that people weren’t going to get the fish they depend on,” says Schmidt, a member of Wisconsin’s Brothertown Indian Nation who’s passionate about helping subsistence fishermen. “But when we crunched the numbers, it was clear: If we want to have any hope of meeting our objectives for escapement” — the number of fish that must survive to perpetuate the stock — “we couldn’t have any harvest.”

What makes the closure so frustrating is that researchers don’t know why the region’s chinook have vanished, or how to bring them back. In the Lower 48, such declines often have obvious causes: dams that impede migration, say, or the destruction of spawning grounds. On the relatively pristine and almost entirely undammed Yukon, though — and on other Alaskan rivers where chinook have nose-dived, like the Kuskokwim, south of the Yukon — the usual suspects don’t apply.

Less bycatch hasn’t produced more Yukon chinook — casting doubts about whether the pollock fishery was ever really the problem.

The king salmon’s disappearance is an ecological mystery as cryptic as it is alarming, and for the villages that dot the banks of the 2,200-mile-long Yukon — remote Alaskan and Canadian towns in which cash and employment are and a gallon of gas can cost more than — the salmon’s absence hasn’t just eroded fishing culture, it’s strained local health and prosperity. one Alaskan put it: “I didn’t realize how much I depended on (the salmon) until I didn’t have it.”

Seven years ago, it seemed clear what was plaguing salmon: Alaskan pollock, the ubiquitous flakey white species featured in fish sandwiches at fast-food joints like McDonald’s. Although the Marine Stewardship Council considers the industry ––  America’s largest fishery –– , it’s impossible to haul metric tons of fish from the Bering Sea each year without landing a few others that you don’t mean to kill. In 2007, a decade into the salmon crisis, pollock boats scooped up a whopping chinook as bycatch in their trawls; up to would have returned to Western Alaska to spawn. Yukon salmon fishermen who had seen their own catches slashed were furious. “(The pollock trawlers’) difficulty is big, big money on one side, and small people on the other,” one Canadian fisherman.

To its credit, and with a hearty push from regulators at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the pollock industry responded with a suite of reforms. Many vessels voluntarily avoided bycatch hotspots and began using nets that allow strong-swimming chinook to escape while leaving weaker pollock ensnared. The industry developed incentives to reward the best performers and punish the worst offenders. And to ensure honest accounting, the fleet expanded the presence of fisheries observers, on-deck biologists funded by industry but managed by the federal government.

In subsequent seasons, bycatch indeed plummeted: Last year, pollock boats took just over . The fleet doesn’t necessarily deserve full credit for that reduction — fewer salmon in trawls might simply mean there are fewer salmon in the sea. Still, Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the , which represents a large portion of the pollock fishery, is sure the fleet’s actions have helped. “Nobody likes restrictions, but these guys can adapt,” Madsen says. “We’re confident that behavior’s changed, and we think those changes have resulted in lower bycatch.”

Less bycatch, however, hasn’t produced more Yukon chinook — casting doubts about whether the pollock fishery was ever really the problem. Salmon runs remain around 200,000 fish below historic levels, a discrepancy much greater than bycatch can explain. “The numbers just don’t add up,” says Daniel Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences at the University of Washington.

Still, down-and-out salmon fishermen continue to blame pollock. One group representing Native Alaskan villages threatened to McDonald’s, and salmon stakeholders have repeatedly called for to the pollock fishery’s allowable take of chinook. “Bycatch certainly isn’t the smoking gun,” says Diana Stram, a fishery analyst with the regional management council. But until chinook turn around in Western Alaska, it’s going to be a concern anytime one is caught as bycatch.”

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is hiring a full-time Restoration Program Coordinator based in Escalante, Utah. gsenm.org
  • Work passionately on behalf of the finest hiking and equestrian trail in the Western United States. Work for the Pacific Crest Trail Association! The Pacific...
  • 7.58 Acres in Delta County for $198,000. and a contiguous 25 acre parcel of land zoned agricultural is available in Montrose county for an additional...
  • in Moab, UT start in Spring. Naturalist, River Guides, Camp Cooks, Internships available. Details at cfimoab.org/employment.
  • Work passionately on behalf of the Pacific Crest Trail Association! Headquartered in Sacramento, California, PCTA is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest...
  • The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) seeks an energetic and motivated Stewardship Coordinator to manage on-going conservation easement stewardship and to work within our...
  • Program Manager, Tongass Forest Program Position Description The Southeast Alaska Conservation Councils Tongass Forest Program Manager coordinates all of the forest and land-use-related campaign work...
  • Friends of the San Juans is looking for an experienced attorney. Details at: http://sanjuans.org/2018/09/26/staff-attorney-fall-2018/
  • 25 acre in native grasses. Cedar draw. Year-round spring. At foot of Moscow Mnt, ID, 7 miles from town.
  • Custom-built pumice home, endless views, 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Taos Real Estate, 575-758-1924, https://hcne.ws/highdeserthaven
  • 5,000 square foot sustainable home on 30 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services...
  • 541-987-2363, [email protected] www.dukewarnerrealtyofeasternoregon.com
  • Reporting to the Board of Directors (Board), the Executive Director (ED) has overall operational responsibility for FoGB staff, programs, expansion, and execution of the mission....
  • Join the Center for Conservation Peacebuilding for a workshop to build your capacity to transform conflicts and create lasting solutions for people and wildlife. April...
  • Nov 7-8 in Grand Junction, CO Keynote: Brad Udall on Climate Change Other Topics: Threats to Food Energy Water Security From Forecasting to Decision-Making Science...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • Skiing, biking, hiking, fishing, 3 bd/2 bth, deck. 1.38 acres, no covenants. Call Reggie Masters, Associate Broker Coldwell Banker Mountain Properties, 970-596-3568.
  • Here is an opportunity to have a piece of self-sufficient paradise on Idaho's Main Salmon River adjacent to the largest Forest Service wilderness area in...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...