05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Something's Fishy on the Yukon...


Ready for some fishy number crunching?

The run of chinook (king) salmon up the Yukon river historically numbers about 250,000 fish. Last year's run was 180,000. The year before was 175,000. It takes a minimum of 170,000 fish to sustain the fishery for subsistence use, and to ensure that there are enough fish to repopulate the river next year. The projections for this year tell us that this minimum number may not be reached. Do the math. We are tiptoeing on the edge of disaster.

Anticipating another poor run of king salmon in the Yukon River, state and federal fisheries managers announced there will likely be no commercial fishing for kings on the river this summer and subsistence fishing will be substantially reduced in order to get more fish to Canadian spawning grounds.

Why do the fish need to get to Canada? Because that's where the Yukon starts, and our two countries share the responsibility for managing this fishery. The number of king salmon reaching the Canadian border the past two years has fallen short of the number specified in the U.S.- Canada Yukon River Salmon Agreement which was signed by the U.S. and Canada in 2001. And as is the way with international treaties, they're not supposed to be violated.

If only there were more fish...

The sad truth that the state of Alaska doesn't want to deal with is the fact that there ARE more fish. Lots more fish. And what's happening to tens of thousands of those king salmon that are swimming toward the Yukon River right now as you read this? They will be caught in the nets of factory trawlers fishing for pollack off the coast, they will be hauled out of the ocean, and they will die. As WASTE. These precious king salmon that should be feeding Alaskans, sustaining a commercial fishery, and helping us fulfill our treaty obligation with Canada are thrown overboard dead.

How can this happen? This is the fallout caused by bad policy. The notion that it's OK to waste these fish that are so desperately needed, as the fishery teeters on the edge of collapse, was discussed during the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting in Anchorage last month. This is where all these problems get talked about, where everyone on every side of fishing issues gets to air their grievances, make suggestions, and work out solutions to this kind of problem.

Native leaders, subsistence users, and others that depend on this fishery all had the opportunity to speak to this issue. What were they asking for? A safe cap of 24,000 for the king salmon "bycatch". Bycatch is the name used for all the extra creatures that come up in nets that you weren't really trying to catch, but you did anyway. So, if you want pollack and you get king salmon, that's bycatch. If this were the military, it might be called "collateral damage". Oops....didn't mean to kill you. Sorry.

What people who depend on this fishery asked for is that no more than 24,000 king salmon should be allowed to be wasted each season. This would allow the salmon to rebound, and reach sustainable levels again.

Up until now, the limit for bycatch has been nonexistant. No cap. They can take as many salmon as they want. And because of that, during some seasons more than 120,000 fish were wasted. The great compromise this year? The state has decided they will cap the number at 68,000 ....two seasons from now in 2011.

Fishermen on the upper Yukon River have been trying for years to get the state to institute net restrictions that would protect king salmon, but the state Board of Fisheries has rejected those proposals, in part because the Department of Fish and Game has not supported them. "Every conservation effort ever put in front of the Board of Fish those guys have argued against, and now they're asking us to reduce our subsistence harvest," Smith said. People living in villages along the Yukon River are worried about whether they will be able to catch enough fish to feed their families this winter, Smith said. "They're scared," said Smith, who has talked to villagers up and down the river.

Victoria Briggs is a Bristol Bay village resident and fishing permit holder involved in the Alaska-based fish processing business. She has been heavily involved in the food drive for residents of Bristol Bay villages that have been hit hard by bad salmon runs leaving them with inadequate income, and food.

"As someone who attended the meeting in Anchorage on this by-catch issue, listened and read reports, and sat through days of public, state and industry testimony, I was extremely concerned by the lack of science being used to manage this resource.

My understanding of the state of Alaska is that fishing resources are to be managed for sustainability and the good of Alaskan residents.

To not err on the side of conservation in this matter, to me, seems to fly in the face of that policy.

I am afraid this might well be the canary in the mine of fishing sustainability for the state of Alaska if we do not manage it better."

An email from Yup'ik leader Myron Naneng, President of the Association of Village Council Presidents asked the following:

Commissioner of Fish and Game, Denby Lloyd, made the motion at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) meeting earlier this month of the high bycatch rate of 68,000, even when his staff who work on the Yukon river was to report to the stakeholders on the Yukon the forecast for 2009 a week after the NPFMC meeting, which is dismal. KTUU has in its webpage the report of the the dismal 2009 forecast that the Alaska Department of Fish &Game released recently. Did the motion justify 68,000 in light of the current chinook salmon status on the Yukon River? Or was it just plain lack of concern by the Palin Administration?

(Raises hand) That would be answer B!

If the salmon are the collateral damage, then the losers of this war are those who have for thousands of years depended on the bounty of the Yukon. That bounty is now being dumped overboard for the benefit of the winners - out-of-state factory trawlers that supply breaded fish sticks for the masses. The losers are the people of Alaska.

We watch as salmon fisheries are closed, and as residents worry they will not have enough food. We watch as we put ourselves in danger of violating an international treaty. We watch as private citizens try to organize food drives, and as the governor shows up with food provided by a religious organization, and a plate of cookies as a way to make this all better.

The state has so far not been willing to deal with any of that. And yet we hear over and over the battle cry, "We don't need the feds!" "They need to keep their noses out of Alaska!"

We're beyond milk & cookies. We need the feds.