The Art and Science of Salmon Management

A local man dipnets a Chum Salmon in June near the mouth of the Yukon River. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Last June I spent a week in the western Alaska village of Emmonak in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) bunkhouse. Roughly ten miles upriver from the Bering Sea, this Yukon River community is home base for state and federal fisheries managers while the salmon are running and people are fishing. It’s where managers get their first snapshot of the relative strength of different salmon runs bound upriver as far as Canada. Because salmon are so important to people all along the river, it’s a job they take very seriously.

Q: When are salmon moving up the Yukon River and where are they going?

Gerald: Chinook and summer Chum Salmon enter the river first. They start coming in after ice-out (late-May to early-June) and take ~30 days to reach the Canadian border. Fall Chum start coming in early- to mid-July. The Coho Salmon run typically peaks during the second half of the fall Chum run. Even as the rivers are icing over and there’s snow on the ground, Coho are still moving upriver.

Fred: They’re all bound for different places. Not only do we have different species of fish traveling at the same time. but also different “stocks” [populations] of the same species going to many locations. Typically we talk about salmon, but there are also sheefish and other species that are migrating into the river just before the salmon. For subsistence fishermen, it’s the whole suite that fills their freezers and gives them fish throughout the year.

Fred Bue (left) is the Yukon Area Inseason Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). He started his career with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in 1978 and has spent most of his time in western Alaska and on the Yukon River. Gerald Maschmann (right), a fish biologist, assists Fred with inseason management of Yukon River salmon runs. He’s worked in Alaska for USFWS for 14 years. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Q: What’s the difference between summer and fall chum Salmon?

Blair: Summer Chum spawn primarily in the lower 500 miles of the Yukon whereas fall Chum spawn from the Tanana River confluence to the Yukon’s headwaters in Canada. Both “races” are extremely important for subsistence and are managed under the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

Blair Flannery, a population geneticist for the USFWS’s Conservation Genetics Lab in Anchorage, provides stock composition estimates for Yukon River summer and fall Chum Salmon runs. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Fred: They’re the same species but have separated themselves in time and space and we can tell them apart based on their genetics and life history strategies. Fall Chum tend to spawn in fall or early winter in upwelling areas (springs) that are cold in summer, warm in winter, really well-defined, and are pretty few and far between. Summer Chum are more widely distributed, mostly in the lower to middle Yukon. They stray between rivers and their gene flow is a lot more active. So genetically, it’s really easy to tell a summer chum from a fall chum.

Q: What types of information do managers use to make decisions?

Fred: Right up until the beginning of the fishing season we’re working with ADF&G to analyze information from the previous year. This helps us develop a “forecast” of how strong the salmon runs might be for different species and which age classes may be strongest in different stocks. The forecast helps us decide what management actions we might need to take initially as fishermen start to harvest fish downstream and before our inseason [realtime] assessment has time to develop. If we have any concerns and think we need to approach the fishing season cautiously, we start by reducing fishing gear or fishing time in the early run. That way we can slow the harvest until we have a good sense of the strength of the run.

A fisherman uses a dipnet to selectively harvest Chum Salmon near the mouth of the Yukon River in June. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Gerald: We’re also looking at Bering Sea surface temperatures and ice break up to get a sense of when to expect fish to start moving upriver. Harvest information from subsistence fishermen near the mouth of the river also help us know when fish are starting to come in.

Fred: Generally, ADF&G collects data on the mixed stock of fish moving up the mainstem and USFWS monitors distinct stocks as they run up tributaries to their spawning grounds in National Wildlife Refuges. That way we have two different complementary sets of data. As fish move upriver, ADF&G’s test fishery in Emmonak is our first inseason indicator of timing and relative strength of different runs, especially those bound for Canada. It tells us if there’s a new group of fish coming in or if the run seems to be increasing. It’s not very quantifiable, but tells us if more fish are being caught today than yesterday. From there, it takes fish about three days to reach Pilot Station [a community about 120 miles upriver]. There, ADF&G has one DIDSON and two split-beam sonar transducers that detect the number [but don’t identify the species] of fish passing by. That’s our first real estimate of abundance. We use gillnets in conjunction with the sonar to determine what proportion of the run is, say, Chinook. What we see at Pilot Station helps us verify what we saw in the test fishery downriver.

Blair: To meet treaty obligations with Canada and ensure enough fish from the different populations reach their spawning grounds, managers need to know the contribution of different stocks caught in the harvest. To this end, fin clips from from Chum Salmon caught in the Pilot Station test fishery are immediately flown into Anchorage. We extract the DNA to determine the genetic profile of each fish and can then compare it to a genetic baseline we developed for Yukon River Chums with the Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada. With this information and the sonar data we can estimate the relative proportion of specific stocks in the harvest mixture — for example, what percentage are headed for the upper Koyukuk in Alaska verses the Porcupine or White Rivers in Canada. We can turn this information back to state and federal managers in 24–48 hours.

Randal Logues and Rachel DeWilde from USFWS’s Conservation Genetics Lab extract DNA from Yukon River Chum Salmon fin clips that have been flown into Anchorage. Each year this lab analyzes approximately 3,000 of these tiny samples over the course of the summer and fall to aid fisheries managers’ decision-making in real time. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Fred: As fish move upriver, some continue up the mainstem and others turn off into tributaries. We can’t possibly monitor all fish returning to every tributary so we focus on long-term monitoring of a few index streams that are exposed to different environmental and weather conditions. The value of long term monitoring at these sites [conducted using weirs] is that they provide a window into individual population trends over time and help reconstruct what happened downstream.

A fish weir spans the East Fork Andreafsky River. This tributary to the Yukon River flows through Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Fish are funneled into narrow chutes along the weir where we get a better look at each fish and collect the following information: species, age, sex, length, migration timing. Photo: USFWS
Weirs guide fish migrating upstream into a narrow chute where they pass in front of a video box. The analog video signal is routed to a DVR and converted to digital format instantaneously. Video: USFWS
Q: How do the state and federal managers work together?

Holly: We meet with Fred and Gerald every day including weekends while the fish are running upriver. We share all of our project data and discuss inseason run timing and abundance, commercial harvests, reports from fishermen, and escapement data. We track pulses of fish daily to assess when and where to open or close fisheries. By working so closely together, we’re able to pool our resources so there are many minds with over 30 years of combined experience working to understand the run and project escapements. This knowledge and experience feeds the decisions that are made daily. The state manager has authority to make decisions about state waters and the federal manager has jurisdiction over federal waters. Because we work so closely together we’re able to streamline our actions so they’re typically consistent and hopefully less confusing for fishermen.

Holly Carroll (center) is the Summer Season Yukon Area Manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Q: What’s a typical day like for managers?

Gerald: ADF&G’s test fishing data typically comes in between 9 and 10am. Then we head over to ADF&G’s Emmonak office for 1–2 hours to go over new information and see where we’re at in the run and what kinds of decisions we need to make — like opening or closing fisheries, when’s the best time, and for how long. In the afternoons we’re typically reviewing news releases. ADF&G typically takes the lead on news releases and if it involves commercial fishing it’s generally a State news release. But if it involves subsistence fishing then it’s typically a joint news release.

The USFWS’s Emmonak field office includes a bunkhouse/kitchen (left) and office (right). This is where Fred and Gerald spend much of their time during the Yukon River summer and fall salmon fishing season.

Holly: Once we’ve met with the federal team and made all the day’s necessary decisions, we write the news releases and the Emergency Orders so that the public has sufficient notice of the fishery actions that will affect them in the coming week. We may publish anywhere from 1–5 news releases per day because there are many fishing subdistricts and because there may be actions affecting subsistence and/or commercial fishing. We answer many phone calls from fishermen about when openings are happening and to clarify gear questions.

Q: As a manager what are your primary goals?

Holly: My primary goal is to ensure that enough Yukon salmon make it to the spawning grounds each and every year so that the future returns will be healthy.

Fred: The Federal Subsistence Board is who I take my direction from primarily and they decide what my management priorities and objectives are. And there’s a whole public process that leads up to that where the public has input into what their priorities are, what their needs are, how they want the fisheries to be managed. My objectives are, generally speaking, for escapement. It’s the highest priority. To meet the public’s needs we need to sustain the fisheries resources. Escapement means the fish that get onto the spawning grounds and we need a certain number to sustain runs into the future. My next priority is to provide opportunity for subsistence fishermen — the local people harvesting fish to feed themselves and their families.

Q: What’s most challenging about Yukon River salmon management?

Holly: Summer season management is made very challenging lately because summer Chum runs in recent years have been large enough to provide for subsistence and commercial harvests while Chinook runs have been very weak. But summer Chum and Chinook are moving upriver at the same time. In order to protect Chinook from overharvest, there is no commercial fishery for them and we must also restrict subsistence harvest. This means we must also reduce and restrict commercial fishing for summer Chum to reduce incidental harvest of Chinook. Commercial fishing for summer Chum is a very important part of the local economy and a way for fishermen to help support their families and subsistence way of living. To reduce commercial fishing on one species to protect another is a delicate balancing act based on our mission and priorities for sustained yield for each species we manage.

Fred: It’s such a big river and it’s hard to have perfect information — in the end it’s a series of estimates. We do the best we can and continually improve our technical capabilities. But you can’t see the fish. And salmon are in freshwater for a relatively short time: they spend two-thirds of their life at sea and it’s a great big black box out there in terms of what we know. There’s a lot of marine research going on but it’s really expensive. And our management authority is in freshwater. We focus on the things we can control and make our best decisions based on the information we have. It’s also hard to make everybody happy. Some people live on the lower river, some on the upper. Different fishing gear and methods are used in different places. They have different species and stocks available to them. Everybody relies on the fish.

The Yukon River is the third longest river in the United States behind the Missouri and Mississippi. The land area it drains (see map) is bigger than Texas. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Q: If you could send one message to Yukon River users what would it be?

Holly: Many fishermen on the Yukon have not been given the freedom to harvest Chinook as they’d like to for the past few years and this causes much hardship and understandable frustration. The gear is restricted, Chinook-directed openings are often later than people want, and all of these things lead to people getting to harvest less than they want or need. These restrictions are put in place to sustain the Chinook runs into the future. We hope that people will understand the need for these conservation measures and see these sacrifices as an investment for the future returns of Chinook.

Fred: One thing that people in Alaska don’t realize is how much voice they actually do have in fisheries management. What you say does have an effect on management. Everything we do revolves around public input. People are making a difference. We take their input very seriously. They should continue to be involved and speak up for their community.

Gerald: In the past, folks just went fishing. They looked at their environment and said “it’s time to go fishing” and they went. There was no schedule, there were no openings and closings. Unfortunately we’re no longer in that kind of environment. My advice is: be involved and informed. Pay attention, call the managers when you have a question, and participate in the Yukon River Drainage Fisherman’s Association teleconferences.

Q: Any messages for young fishermen or future fishermen not born yet?

Holly: It’s very important that young people continue to go fishing and to fish camp with their elders and families, and learn the priceless traditional knowledge about salmon that their elders possess. It’s important for fishermen to stay involved in fisheries discussions, and to call the managers and discuss their concerns and share their knowledge with managers so they can make the most informed decisions. They can also help make the fishing and hunting regulations thru the Board of Fish and the Board of Game process which is open to the public. Young fishermen should consider joining local advisory committees and shaping the future of the fisheries. These committees have a real say in regulations that get passed affecting Alaskans’ hunting and fishing.

Fred: The world that the young fishermen come into is different than what their elders and parents experience. We learn from each other. And over time we learn from our elders what has happened in the past. And we use that information to make decisions about the future. We’re constantly trying to make things better, trying to improve the way we do things and the way we think about the resource and try to sustain it further and make it go farther.

Photo: “Keeping subsistence alive through our children” by Rae Belle Whitcomb

Katrina Liebich is based in Anchorage, Alaska and has served in her current position as Fisheries Outreach Coordinator in Alaska for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since 2010.

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