In western Alaska, chum salmon stocks have declined sharply over the past two years. This is a problem, as the inhabitants of the region depend heavily on fish for food and work. Scientists are in the early stages of trying to understand the crash.
Bill Alstrom lives in St. Mary’s on the lower Yukon River. In the old days, if he wanted fresh salmon for dinner, he would throw a net in the river to catch a couple. But with the fishing closures this season, he can’t do it anymore.
âIt’s hard to understand that this is happening in my lifetime. It makes me sad just thinking about it, âAlstrom said.
The state of Alaska has closed the chum fishery to protect the trails. For Yukon River families, chum is especially important. Chinook salmon have been weak for decades, but fish families could depend on chum until last year, when the summer chum run fell below half its usual numbers. This year, the race has declined further, reaching record levels.
Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game biologist Katie Howard said chum decline isn’t just happening in the Yukon River.
âWhen we talk to colleagues from the Lower 48s and from Canada, Japan, Russia, they all report some really bad buddy runs. So it’s not just a Yukon phenomenon. It’s not just a phenomenon in Alaska, but pretty much everywhere, âHoward said.
So why is the buddy count so low? The short answer is, no one really knows for sure. There are many theories that this story will run through, starting with that of the people who live off the Yukon River.
Every week during the summer, subsistence users, biologists and fisheries managers come together in a weekly teleconference through the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. They share information and ask questions, and subsistence users conjure up a theory of decline over and over again: bycatch.
Bycatch occurs when ocean-going fishing vessels targeting one species also accidentally kill other fish. Some see it as a necessary evil, while others are totally against it.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association tracks bycatch. Bycatch of chum salmon other than chinook is already higher than normal this year, and bycatch has been on the rise since 2012.
NOAA distinguishes between bycatch other than chinook salmon and chinook salmon because bycatch of chinook salmon is heavily regulated. If trawlers catch more chinook than allowed, they should shorten their fishing season. He urges trawlers to avoid chinook feeding grounds.
Trawlers are also required to report their chinook bycatch, but there is no limit to these amounts. NOAA estimates that 99.6% of its chinook bycatch is chum.
So if bycatch of chum is above normal this year and tends to increase, would bycatch be a major factor in the decline of chum in western Alaska? Not necessarily, a NOAA spokesperson said, because the fish that die on trawlers are largely not destined for western Alaska. About 16% are from the west coast of Alaska and less than 1% from the upper and middle Yukon.
The rest of the bycatch is mostly hatchery fish: fish that have been hatched in a controlled environment. Most of them come from Japan. Hatchery fish are also cited by some as a possible cause of the decline of chum. Jack Schultheis is the manager of the only wild salmon processor in the Yukon: Kwik’pak Fisheries, LLC in Emmonak.
âI think it disrupted something in the food chain,â Schultheis said.
Kwik’pak belongs to an aboriginal community development quota (CDQ) group called the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association which also owns trawlers. NOAA data shows CDQ trawlers are responsible for less than 10% of chum bycatch and trawlers owned by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association are responsible for less than 1% of chum bycatch on vessels Americans.
State biologist Howard doesn’t think hatchery fish are the problem. This is because hatchery fish populations haven’t changed much over the past 30 years. But Peter Westley, associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, thinks hatchery fish could be at least part of the problem.
âThese declines in the salmon that we are seeing in our local rivers may be linked, ironically, to too many fish in the ocean,â Westley said.
Westley said that’s because since the 1970s, the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea have been teeming with food for wild and hatchery chum, and both populations have increased over the decades. But now he suspects that over-competition for food has led to a massive decline.
âThe reality is you don’t know you were at a tipping point until it’s in the rearview mirror,â Westley said.
Westley said climate change could be the culprit for the lack of food in the ocean. He said collapses in salmon stocks will be more likely as the ocean continues to warm. Westley said this over-competition affects both hatcheries and wild fish, leading to a decrease in salmon numbers.
On the Yukon River, subsistence fisherman Alstrom also believes warming temperatures could be a factor in the crash. During his 70 years at St. Mary’s, he saw the changes in the environment with his own eyes.
âAnd all those trees over there look like a jungle. There were scrubs there when I was young, âAlstrom said.
Alstrom said animals in the area are also changing. He never saw a moose in his childhood, but during his life they started to move in.
Researchers are trying to understand the crash of the buddy. For decades, biologists have primarily focused on chinook salmon, which have a long history of decline and are more valued by commercial and subsistence fishermen.
NOAA and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are conducting two surveys in the Bering Sea this year to study salmon marine life. State biologist Howard is currently participating in one of these investigations. She would like to see more funding to study chum wintering habitat in the North Pacific, but said it is expensive and dangerous to conduct this research due to the turbulent winter seas.
Westley said the number one question that needs to be answered now is where the Buddies die in their lifecycle. This will help scientists determine what is killing the fish.
Alstrom said it would be difficult for his community if the salmon didn’t come back.
âIt’s just not fair when you live in your area who is supposed to be teeming with salmon, and without it. It’s just devastating, âAlstrom said.
Despite the decline, biologists say chum is not endangered and that food fishery closures are helping salmon reach their spawning grounds.