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.

    NASA
 

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 64,000 to 121,000 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 scarce and a gallon of gas can cost more than $6 — the salmon’s absence hasn’t just eroded fishing culture, it’s strained local health and prosperity. As 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 billion-dollar industry ––  America’s largest fishery –– sustainable, it’s impossible to haul 1.1 million 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 121,000 chinook as bycatch in their trawls; up to two-thirds 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,” railed 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 13,000 chinook. 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 At-Sea Processors Association, 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 boycott McDonald’s, and salmon stakeholders have repeatedly called for cuts 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.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...