Fisheries Management

Yukon River breakup
Yukon River breakup

There are eight uniquely different fisheries along the Yukon River. Two of these were identified in the Agreement as having priority over all other fisheries– subsistence fisheries in Alaska and First Nation fisheries in the Yukon Territory. Other consumptive uses of the resource, commercial, personal use and sport fisheries in Alaska and domestic, sport/recreational and commercial fisheries in the Yukon Territory, have no hierarchy and are managed according to conservation needs and respective national priorities for subsistence and Yukon First Nation fisheries.

Meeting escapement goals and conservation needs are the first priorities for both countries. However, both countries have different management approaches to address conservation and allocation priorities. It is policy within Alaska to manage the salmon runs for maximum sustained yield, while the Yukon Territory salmon runs are managed to conserve and protect the salmon resource as mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) pertaining to the Yukon First Nation Land Claims. To better protect the salmon resource, funding to management agencies, in both Alaska and the Yukon Territory, is allocated for a number of programs including fisheries and habitat management, stock and habitat assessment, research, enforcement and education.

Achieving these objectives in the Yukon River drainage is difficult due to many factors such as:

  • the biological complexity of the stocks;
  • the wide distribution of spawning streams;
  • wide fluctuations in run sizes;
  • increasing efficiency and demands of user groups; and
  • the requirement for a precautionary approach to fisheries management that protects and conserves wild stocks.

The first indication of the run strength comes from data collected by ADF&G in the lower Yukon River. These data, including sonar estimates, test fishery indices, fishery performance and early escapement counts, though not specific to Canadian stocks, can be useful in obtaining a preliminary outlook  for the run.

Pursuant to the Yukon Salmon Act of 2000 (U.S.), “The state of Alaska Department of Fish and Game shall be the responsible management entity for the United States for the purposes of any agreement with Canada regarding management of salmon stocks originating from the Yukon River in Canada.” The State of Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) sets policy and direction for management of the state’s fishery resources. The policy of the ADF&G is to manage the salmon runs to the extent possible for maximum sustained yield, unless otherwise directed by regulation and to allow for spawning escapement and Canadian harvest shares as written into the language of the Agreement.

Management of the Yukon River salmon fishery is complex because of the current inability to determine stock specific abundance and run timing, overlapping multi-species runs, the increasing efficiency of fishing gear, allocation issues, and the immense size of the Yukon River drainage. Albeit, state and federal agencies, Native organizations, and fisher groups operate various projects, such as aerial and ground surveys, test fisheries, tributary and mainstem sonar, tagging, tower and weir projects and harvest survey programs to obtain information necessary to assess salmon runs.

Beginning in 1999, a lack of consistency between state and federal laws resulted in dual management of subsistence fisheries within the Alaskan portion of the Yukon River drainage based on distinctions between state and federal lands. The State of Alaska statutes provide a subsistence priority for all Alaskan residents outside of established non-subsistence use areas within Alaska. However, federal law under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) requires, on federal lands, only rural residents are privileged by the subsistence priority when there are not enough fish for other uses.

Due to this divergence, federal jurisdiction now applies to applicable waters (i.e. waters flowing through and/or occurring on federal lands) to ensure the subsistence priority for federally-qualified rural residents. As part of a dual management system, state (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, ADF&G) and federal (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USFWS) authorities work together to share and collect assessment information and issue joint news releases to inform the public of subsistence management actions. The USFWS strives to ensure all federally-qualified users of the salmon resource have priority on federal lands, while ADF&G strives to provide for all subsistence users within subsistence-use areas of the Alaskan portion of the drainage. Tribal councils and non-profit organizations, such as YRDFA, AVCP and TCC, further serve to represent tribal interests, as well as fishers and local community users in Alaska.

In-season evaluations of salmon runs (such as evaluating abundance indices from test fisheries, passage estimates from sonar and mark-recapture projects, and listening to Yukon River fishers via YRDFA’s weekly in-season teleconferences) allow managers to adjust pre-season management plans, if needed, based on run timing and/or abundance. In a strong run year, managers provide commercial harvest opportunities and may consider increasing border passage to a greater level to allow a higher spawning escapement for that year.

If in-season assessment indicates abundance to be insufficient to meet escapement objectives, management entities may consider taking further conservation measures during the fishing season, such as restricting subsistence harvests. These management actions ensure adequate numbers of fish reach spawning grounds and the agreed upon harvest shares are met (harvest shares can fall to zero for both Alaskans and Yukoners if spawning escapement objectives appear to be unachievable).

To ensure the general public is provided an opportunity to participate in the state’s regulatory process, local Fish and Game Advisory Committees were established. These committees meet -in a public forum- to discuss fish and wildlife issues in order to make recommendations to the Boards of Fisheries and Game. The BOF takes into account these recommendations, and all public comments, when considering proposals to change fisheries regulations. The Federal Subsistence Board was also created to ensure priority is given to rural residents on federal lands for subsistence uses of fish and wildlife. Ten Regional Advisory Councils were created under the Federal Subsistence Board with community and regional leaders as members. The role of reviewing, evaluating and making recommendations concerning regulations, policies and allocation plans, gives a chance for those directly affected by federal jurisdiction, namely Alaskans relying on resources on federal lands, to be included in the decision-making process.

Contact with ADF&G managers usually commences early June followed by weekly updates. By the time upper Yukon stocks reach the Canadian section of the drainage, the relative abundance of the various salmon species and their timing have been generally ascertained in the lower river. This information serves as a distant early warning of runs that deviate from pre-season expectations and allows time to prepare managers and fishers for potential changes to fishing plans.

Once the salmon runs reach the Canada/US border, focus shifts to stock assessment programs conducted in Canada, namely the Yukon mark-recapture program. This program provides in-season projections of the border escapement, i.e. the run size as it enters the Canadian section of the upper Yukon River, to guide weekly abundance-based management decisions.

The inseason projections are generally available from the third week of July through the end of August for chinook salmon, and from mid-September on for chum salmon. Traditionally, the recapture of tags in the commercial fishery has provided data upon which to base in-season run projections. However, when the commercial fishery is closed, a test fishery provides the information, subject to available funding.

Contact with ADF&G managers usually commences early June followed by weekly updates. By the time upper Yukon stocks reach the Canadian section of the drainage, the relative abundance of the various salmon species and their timing have been generally ascertained in the lower river. This information serves as a distant early warning of runs that deviate from pre-season expectations and allows time to prepare managers and fishers for potential changes to fishing plans.

Once the salmon runs reach the Canada/US border, focus shifts to stock assessment programs conducted in Canada, namely the Yukon mark-recapture program. This program provides in-season projections of the border escapement, that is. the run size as it enters the Canadian section of the upper Yukon River, to guide weekly abundance-based management decisions.

The in-season projections are generally available from the third week of July through the end of August for chinook salmon, and from mid-September on for chum salmon. Traditionally, the recapture of tags in the Canadian commercial fishery has provided data upon which to base in-season run projections; and since 2007, sonar equipment and test fisheries near the US/Canada border have been used to estimate border passage.  In the Canadian portion of the drainage, either the commercial fishery, or in years when the commercial fishery is closed, a test fishery provides the information also.