Autumn has set in on Alaska’s Lower Yukon River, where the fall harvest of those oil-rich Yukon chum salmon is in progress, a fishery that feeds the regional economy with seafood sales in markets domestic and European.
After a robust harvest of summer chum, enhanced by an innovative dip net fishery, the Yupik Eskimo harvesters who deliver to Kwik’Pak Fisheries, a subsidiary of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, were waiting out a lull, ready to begin harvesting more fall Yukon River chum salmon for markets awaiting Kwik’Pak’s fillets, gourmet smoked products and more.
So far, overall, it’s been a good year, said Jack Schultheis, sales manager for the company owned by the non-profit community development quota entity.
Through the first week of August, the commercial fishery on the Lower Yukon had yielded some 458,000 chums. In addition to harvests from fishers in area communities, Kwik’Pak buys fish for processing from Boreal Fisheries, at the Yukon River village of St. Mary’s, established in 1974 by Randy and Edna Crawford.
“We have the infrastructure to do a good job but we don’t have the market,” said Randy Crawford. For years the couple produced fresh and frozen Yukon kings and chums, and a line of smoked salmon products in gift packaging, including a gourmet smoked Yukon king recipe that won the People’s Choice Award at the 2006 Alaska Symphony of Seafoods, and with it a trip to Seafood Expo North American, the annual international seafood show in Boston.
Kwik’Pak’s own varieties of gourmet smoked salmon are popular in several West Coast retail markets and also for sale online at www.kwikpaksalmon.com.
Offerings include Yukon Keta Candy, Old Style Smokes Yukon Keta, Garlic and Pepper Infused Smoked Yukon Keta and Traditional Yukon Keta Strips.
The Crawfords, with deep ties to the St. Mary’s community, said they were happy to have markets for fish delivered to them by harvesters from several communities beyond the borders of the community development quota area. The CDQ extends 50 miles upriver from the coast, but with harvesters from Boreal Fisheries, the harvest comes in from a 90-mile stretch.
The idea of using dip nets for the early part of the summer run, so that harvesters could put back in the river prohibited king salmon, came from fisheries consultant Gene Sandone of Wasilla, a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee, Schulteis said. Sandone experimented with the idea in the summer of 2012, and asked ADF&G to allow for a test fishery. Now he’s working on getting permission for use of a seine fishery as well, again to allow release of the kings unharmed, Schultheis said.
Fishermen using dip nets harvested over 1.1 million pounds of summer chum salmon from the Yukon without killing a single king salmon in Districts 1 and 2, Sandone said.
“Although over 900 king salmon were caught in dip nets, all were easily and quickly released back to the river alive to continue their migration upriver,” he said.
“Additionally, most fishers had fun and some even took their family out to participate in this dip net fishery,” he said. “This dip net fishery was a more laid-back fishery that lasted for 12 hours each day. Fishers could take a break or fish for a limited amount of time and still put some money in their pocket without having to participate in the fast-paced fishery that comes with the more traditional gillnet fishery that is only open for a few hours,” he said.
An additional benefit of the dip net fishery was the condition of the harvested chum salmon. “The salmon had no bruising or gillnet marks,” he said. “Few scales were lost. They were handled much more gently, bled and put on ice in the fisher’s boat.
“This catching and handling resulted in a premium product. The use of dip nets has been so successful that some fishers are requesting that the restriction to use this gear only in times of king conservation be lifted so that they can use this gear in the fall chum salmon fishery” he said.
In addition to the introduction of dipnets as new commercial fishing gear, gillnets of smaller mesh size and shallower depth were used with success at harvesting chum salmon while substantially reducing the catch of king salmon over previous years, he said.
Once the bulk of the kings migrate out of the lower reaches of the Yukon, ADF&G normally allows the harvest of summer chum salmon with gillnets each year.
In 2013 the king salmon run was so poor that even the commercial chum fishery was in jeopardy, Sandone said.
In previous years, gillnet mesh was limited to six inches with depths not to exceed 50 meshes. King salmon catches were measured in the thousands of fish. The new gear, which consists of 5.5-inch mesh and is only 30 meshed deep, worked extraordinarily well at avoiding kings while catching the more abundant chum salmon, Sandone said. While in effect, this fishery harvested over 45,000 pounds of chum salmon while catching only 102 kings, he said.
Employment of these two new gear types not only resulted in a much reduced catch of kings, but for substantial increase in commercial fishing time.
In District 1, starting on June 18, commercial fishing for chum salmon was allowed for 23 continuous days, and in District 2, starting June 20, commercial fishing for chum salmon was allowed for 20 days out of 22, he said.
Another economic plus was more employment in this western Alaska region where jobs are hard to come by. Kwik’Pak was able to hire more people sooner (for processing and related positions) because we started fishing sooner and because of the steady volume of fish we were able to have quite a labor field day for workers,” Schultheis said. “In some places, where we could, we were running two shifts. We brought in 75 people from out of town, had them staying here in Emmonak,” he said.
Sandone, who has dip net fished on the Kenai River in Southcentral Alaska, said he had long thought of using dip nets in these fisheries but “it was such a bizarre idea that nobody took it seriously.”
And then they did, in their own way. “Some of them just tied the dip net onto the boat and drifted backwards,” he said. “One used four dip nets and just drifted with the current. I was amazed,” he said. “They knew that taking kings would jeopardize the health of the run, and they were just happy to be fishing.”
While Schultheis credits Sandone with the idea, Sandone said the idea never would have gone anywhere if Schultheis hadn’t taken a chance.
And the final stroke in their favor was the weather during the dip net phase of the fishery.
“We had absolutely fantastic weather when they went out dip netting, sunny and calm,” Sandone said. “But a lot of the credit goes to Jack,” he said. “He listened to me and gave me the chance. I really didn’t expect it to work this well. I don’t think anyone did.”