What’s become of the Yukon kings?

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in the Morris Communications series, “The case for conserving Kenai king salmon.”


The Yukon River draws into its mouth the largest migration of chinook, chum, and coho salmon stocks in the world. For the chinook, or kings, the river offers passage from the Bering Sea to spawning streams across Alaska and Yukon Territory all the way to British Columbia. The iconic fish run is one of the longest freshwater fish migrations on earth.

Because the kings will not feed once they enter the river, they must build up tremendous oil reserves beforehand. Burning only this fuel, some of the Canada-bound kings will ascend the river for more than 2,000 miles, climbing 2,200 feet, fighting the Yukon’s powerful current for up to two months. 

Consequently, with oil levels reaching more than 30 percent of their muscle weight, Yukon kings are the richest salmon in the world. More oil means more moisture, more flavor and a lusher taste. Many epicures say these salmon have no equal. 

“They’re like blocks of butter,” says one Yukon River fisherman.  

And they’re big. Steamboat captain Hill Barrington reported a 103-pound king at Dawson City. A fish camp photo from 1913 notes kings so large “their weight stops the wheel.” A 1924 picture of a Dawson shop displays a hook-nosed lunker tipping the scales at 85 pounds. 

Kings are big for good reason. A single large female can deposit more than 17,000 eggs. And eggs from larger kings are themselves larger and provisioned with more nutrients. 

But, in our time, this extraordinary race of monster fish has become small, weak, and at risk of vanishing. 


Signs of disaster

Stanley Zuray is a dog musher (he placed ninth in the Iditarod as a rookie), a trapper and a fisherman. He has fished for Yukon kings near the village of Tanana for 40 years. In 1996, Zuray put his fish wheel into service sampling salmon for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the more he learned about data collection, the more dissatisfied he was with the quality of the data used by the agencies to manage the king fishery. Resourceful beyond even typically resourceful bush folk, Zuray set out to build the most reliable database on Yukon king salmon in existence. 

In a seven-year sampling of 6,919 Yukon kings conducted by Zuray at Rampart Rapids, the kings averaged 11.7 pounds. The proportion of females caught in the seven years prior to 2011 averaged a mere 20 percent, which means fewer eggs and less productivity on the spawning grounds.

Historically, the average Yukon king run was around 300,000. But in the 16 years since 1997 half the run has disappeared. The average harvest is only a third what it was. 

State and federal agencies have declared either “economic disasters” or “fishery disasters” in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Preliminary data shows the 2013 run to be among the worst returns in 40 years of recordkeeping, maybe the worst.

Treaty-obligated border passage into Canada has not been met for five of the last seven years. Last year’s escapement into Canada was the worst in 13 years. 

More than 40 villages across Interior Alaska and Yukon Territory depended on the Yukon kings for food. But the fish camps that used to number in the many hundreds have vanished. And the slender thread connecting these people to their 8,000-year history of fishing for king salmon appears ready to snap.


The in-river story

When news outlets have covered this story, they have generally taken government biologists’ suggestion to look out to sea for answers: at the pollock fleet bycatch or global climate change or marine ecological processes or at any number of large-system forces beyond anyone’s immediate control. 

Quite likely several of those forces are having an effect on the Yukon king run. But the in-river management practices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have largely escaped analytical coverage. And management is a factor that can be controlled. 

The state began managing the Yukon fishery in 1960, and it was “pretty low key and slow paced,” says Fred Andersen, a retired ADFG fisheries biologist who worked in the Yukon fishery for more than 20 years. “Traditionally, people along the lower river deployed set nets in eddies, and there are a limited number of eddies.” 

But in the middle 1970s many people in the lower river shifted to a technique called drift netting, where a net stretches out from a boat drifting down the river. In 1960, there were 46 drift nets on the Yukon. By 1975 that number shot up to 314, a nearly sevenfold increase. One year later, there were 700 permits that allowed drift netting in the lower river, as Fish and Game established a “limited entry” commercial fishery.

“All of a sudden, the people are drifting 300-foot nets through these channels,” says Andersen. “And now 80 or 90 percent of the effort is by drift net.”  

The result was a dramatic increase in harvest and harvest efficiency. “Suddenly, with drift nets, the “catch per unit effort” went sky high,” says Andersen. “But to Fish and Game, that was not due to a shift to a more efficient method of fishing, but to a larger run.

“It frequently seemed to me that there was and is a tendency to favor whichever data source was indicating greatest run strength, hence justifying lower-river commercial fishing openings, and to downplay the other indicators that might be suggesting a run of lesser size,” Andersen says

But agency managers never really adjusted,  he says. 

“I spent 16 years of my career trying unsuccessfully to tamp down what I saw as excessive harvests in the lower Yukon,” he says. 

In the summer of 1980 a genuine bumper king run occurred. The Alaska commercial take exceeded 150,000 kings, a record that still stands. In response, Fish and Game proposed a drastic increase in commercial harvest for the lower river. They recommended scrapping the fixed quota of 90,000 fish, and substituting a “range” whose upper limit would be 120,000. Overnight, with Board of Fisheries approval, the lower river fishermen’s new target jumped by a full third. 


Shrinking fish

At the same time, the Board of Fisheries left unregulated the mesh size of the nets, which one researcher believes made the Yukon the last large-mesh commercial salmon fishery in the world. Fishermen preferred large-mesh nets because they caught larger fish. But female kings tend to be larger than males, and this gear selectively removed the largest and most fecund females, preventing them from breeding. 

Reciprocally, fish genetically disposed to breed at a younger age — hence smaller and less fecund — saw increased opportunity to spawn. Consequently, this gear, and the management that allowed it to continue for 50 years, altered the genetic makeup of the Yukon kings. 

Evolutionary biology predicts that if a population is subject to significantly increased mortality (like over-fishing), earlier sexual maturity will result, and breeding will occur at a smaller body size. When fishing practices target larger (hence older) fish, it will intensify this evolutionary trend. Experimental studies confirm that harvest-induced evolution can occur in fish populations in just a few generations. 

While shrinking fish size is seen by fisheries biologists everywhere as a hallmark of a fish stock in peril, evidence of it in the Yukon River did not seem to overly concern ADFG or the fisheries associations that advocate for commercial fishing interests or the lower river fishermen.

As late as 2006, according to newspaper accounts, ADFG’s management supervisor for the Yukon River, Dan Bergstrom, saw no particular urgency regarding reports of declining fish size: “We don’t see a crisis at this point.” 

At the same time, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association stated it would resist any new regulations regarding mesh size restrictions. The organization is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established in 1990 made up of subsistence and commercial fishers with a mission of protecting and promoting all healthy fisheries and cultures along the Yukon River drainage,” according to its website. Mesh size restrictions also were opposed in 2010 by the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents dozens of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.

Said Jill Klein of the Yukon River Drainage Fishermen’s Association in a 2006 Associated Press article, “We would probably still fight (changes).” 

Thirty years earlier, the agency and other stakeholders had been served notice that large-mesh nets threatened the Yukon kings. Writing in 1976, C.E. Walker, a senior biologist with Canada’s Fisheries and Marine Service, warned that “greater use of gillnets and those of large mesh size, six inches or greater, may result in significantly greater exploitation of female fish.” And that, he said, “may threaten the (chinook) salmon population with extinction.” 


Conservation proposals fail

As it happened, Stan Zuray and other upriver fishermen were the first to observe smaller fish and recognize it as a sign of coming disaster. Through their local advisory committees, they pressed vigorously for state managers to adopt conservation measures. 

A review of the Board of Fisheries records over the last 16 years shows that upriver fishermen have submitted dozens of proposals and given public testimony calling for specific regulations to protect the Yukon king run. 

At every relevant board meeting since 2004, they petitioned to reduce the allowable mesh size to six inches. Every time ADFG opposed the measures. And until 2013, the Board of Fisheries rejected the proposals as written. In 2010 the board voted to reduce the mesh size, but only to 7.5-inches, a size Zuray felt would target the largest kings remaining. 

In 2013, the board again rejected changes to subsistence nets, but unanimously agreed to limit lower river commercial chum fishermen to 5.5-inch mesh, an effort meant to preserve kings. That was proposed by Gene Sandone, a fisheries consultant for Kwik’pak. 

At the same meeting, the board also accepted a proposal from the Yukon River Stakeholders Group that instituted pulse protection, prohibiting lower river fishing on the first pulse of king salmon to swim upstream, and carried a board-generated proposal that allows the use of dipnets instead of gillnets for commercial fishermen on the lower river.

From 2004 through 2010, the upriver advisory committees also proposed to ban drift netting altogether, to reduce the depth of the nets, and to put various types of limits on the take or duration of commercial fishing. In 2013, a proposal from the Ruby advisory committee to cap the chinook catch in certain lower river chum fisheries failed, but the board agreed to prohibit the sale of kings caught outside of the commercial fishery.

In virtually every case, the Department of Fish and Game either opposed the measure outright or argued against it while declaring neutrality. In no case did the department recommend that the board adopt any of these measures. In every case the proposals failed at the Board of Fisheries, or the board took “no action,” or the proposal was altered by amendment. Virgil Umphenour has been a commercial fish buyer and processor for 28 years. He was a member of the Board of Fisheries from 1994 to 2002. His analysis is simple: “Why the department almost always opposes those
proposals is because they’re going to kiss the rear end of the commercial fishery with the most political influence. That’s the way they do it.”

“It’s just politics,” says Umphenour. “Because the commercial fishing industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the state, and they have a lot of money to lobby. They have a lot of political influence. And it seems they almost always win. That is what happened to our king salmon.” 

Jack Schultheis, general manager of Kwik’pak Fisheries, could not agree less. 

Kwik’Pak Fisheries is a salmon processing operation at Emmonak on the mouth of the Yukon. It is owned by Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, or YDFDA, one of six Western Alaska Community Development Quota groups representing 65 villages within 50 miles of the Bering Sea coast that receive 10.7 percent of the total harvest for more than 30 Bering Sea species such as pollock, crab and halibut. 

“I don’t think commercial fishing caused that run to be what it is today,” he says. “It’s an ocean problem.” 

That’s how ADFG saw it, too. For a decade the agency dismissed shrinking kings as a problem necessitating in-river conservation measures. 

“We don’t think it’s a problem within freshwater. We think the problem is out in the ocean,” said Gene Sandone in 2001, when he managed the Yukon fishery for ADFG. Eleven years later, a headline read, “Decline in king salmon is rooted in the sea, state biologists say.”

But a 2007 paper published in Science magazine by Christian Jorgensen and colleagues suggested a more likely culprit is the evolutionary changes that result from overharvesting, especially when the fishing gear selects for size. The authors’ analysis of fisheries data shows “widespread changes” in fish maturation that are “unlikely to be explained by environmental influences alone.” Rather, they argue, “fisheries-induced evolution consistently arises” as the simplest explanation. 

It took a decade of agitation and data, but by 2009 the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association finally and formally agreed with Stan Zuray and other upriver fishermen that the king salmon were shrinking and the run was in serious trouble. 

By 2011, even the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s John Linderman, who succeeded Sandone, acknowledged that the decline in the Yukon’s older, larger king salmon had “been shown fairly conclusively by a multitude of different projects.”

When asked why the department was so late coming to this realization, Linderman cites a disinclination to restrict fishermen’s economic and subsistence needs “until it became very, very abundantly clear that action was absolutely necessary.” 

The agency and the fishermen may finally be in agreement on the size decline, but Jack Schulthies of Kwik’pak is not on board. 

“There’s a lot of anecdotal stories about small fish, but as far as hard data, I’m not aware of any,” he said.


Reducing escapement goals

Ideally, managers would first ensure that an adequate escapement reached spawning streams, then they would meet subsistence needs, then any surplus might be allocated to commercial fishing. But salmon have their highest commercial value in the lower river, nearer the sea. So, before the size of the run is well known — let alone the escapement — managers must decide if and how much commercial fishing to allow. 

“It’s a task so tough, so complicated, and so unyielding that the complexity itself is an argument for conservative management — for backing off and for erring on the side of conservation,” says Fred Andersen. 

And this, says Andersen, the agency has not done. Instead, in 2010, Fish and Game lowered the escapement goal for Yukon king salmon from a fixed 45,000 to a newly established range of 42,500 to 55,000. In three out of four years since then, they have not met this lowered goal.  

Notwithstanding, the agency is giving thought to lowering the escapement goal further, and this time radically. In a 2011 meeting of the Yukon River Panel, a joint American-Canadian body that sets escapement goals, ADFG members presented preliminary mathematical modeling suggesting a Canadian escapement of only about 30,000 chinooks might suffice.

Randy Brown, a fisheries researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an expert on the Yukon king run, acknowledges the value of models, but says, “they require an extraordinary amount of data which we simply don’t have for the Canadian component.” Consequently, modelers “create the data to fill the gaps,” he says, yielding unconvincing results. 

“They’re still pushing to lower the escapement…because that would solve the Canada problem,” says Stan Zuray. “And if anybody has any doubts they would do that, all they got to do is look at what happened last year on the Kuskokwim.” 

The 2012 king run on the Kuskokwim was the worst on record, resulting in the worst subsistence harvest on record. The next year, instead of acting to increase spawners, ADFG lowered Kuskokwim escapement goals based on the same controversial modeling. 

Next, the agency predicted a strong Kuskokwim king run for 2013, and permitted lower river subsistence fishing with all gear types and unrestricted mesh size. The result could hardly have been worse. Downriver fishermen hauled in fish from a run that came a week late and ended two weeks early, while mid-river and up-river fishermen experienced restrictions. 

Tributary weirs that were operating failed to meet the new, lower escapement goal. In fact, escapement at every single weir was the lowest ever recorded. 

As ADFG begins to plan for the 2014 run, several Native villages from the middle Kuskokwim have passed resolutions calling for “significant conservation measures” to save the kings. Discussions will continue over the winter, but the agency anticipates “a more conservative management strategy,” according to its 2013 season summary. “Management will be restrictive at the onset of the season with the potential to relax restrictions based on in-season information if warranted.”

“What we’ve seen is too much harvest, too little conservation, escapement goals reduced, the runs collapse and ADFG in complete denial,” says Stan Zuray. 

“Sure there might be other factors — in the ocean, climate change — all these things might be having an effect. But none of that can compare to what happened from a management perspective. To me, you wouldn’t expect any other result from the management that was taking place,” he says.


Next week: Examining the state and federal regulatory process for salmon management.


Dan O’Neill is the author of three books: The Firecracker Boys, The Last Giant of Beringia, and A Land Gone Lonesome. He can be reached at onefam@yahoo.com.


What’s become of the Yukon kings?
Young Alaska Natives measure salmon at Rampart Rapids, part of fisherman/researcher Stan Zuray’s effort to document declining size of Yukon River kings.-Photo courtesy of Stan Zuray

Young Alaska Natives measure salmon at Rampart Rapids, part of fisherman/researcher Stan Zuray’s effort to document declining size of Yukon River kings.-Photo courtesy of Stan Zuray

Salmon strips dry at a fish camp along the Yukon River. More than 40 villages across Alaska and Canada depend on king salmon for subsistence.-Associated Press file photo

Salmon strips dry at a fish camp along the Yukon River. More than 40 villages across Alaska and Canada depend on king salmon for subsistence.-Associated Press file photo