The once mighty Yukon River Chinook runs have been dwindling for several years. Recently the numbers were so low that even native subsistence fisheries were curtailed. There are several potential causes for the dramatic decline, but fisheries managers are increasingly concerned about the possibility that by catch from the large fleet of pollock fishery may be a prime suspect.
Pollock is the prime source of the frozen fish sticks marketed around the world and the pollock fleet is now the largest fishery in terms of total volume in the U.S.
Increasingly, they have been scooped up by the massive Bering Sea pollock fleet, a global source of frozen fish sticks, fillets and imitation crab, and the largest fishery by volume in the United States.
As the size of the pollock fleet has grown to meet the world's demand for fish, they have increasingly taken Yukon River Chinook as by catch. Fisheries regulations forbid the pollock fishers from keeping salmon. Pollock fishers usually toss back dead and dying salmon and save some for food banks.
The chinook bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery has been increasing dramatically. In 2007 the by catch of chinook was 122,000 fish. That compares to the previous five year average of roughly 50,000. Bycatch of other salmon species has risen to as much as 700,000 fish.
As Chinook runs dwindle in the Yukon, fisheries managers are increasingly taking aim at the unacceptable large by catch numbers. The federal agency that regulates the fishery has tentatively approved a temporary closure of the Bering Sea pollock fishery if the large bycatch of chinook continues.
Ragnar Alstrom, executive director of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, said, "We recognize that pollock is where we get our royalty money from." said. But both the subsistence and commercial salmon fisheries in river are more important to us than the pollock."
Diana Stram, a spokesperson for the fisheries council said, "We are working to balance the ability of the Pollock fleet to optimize their catch while minimizing salmon by catch."
The pollock fishery is only one of several problems that have led to the decline of the Yukon River chinook run. Other concerns include availability of bait fish, predators, and disease and ocean temperatures.
. Frank Quinn, of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said, "There are many reasons the salmon don't come back to spawn. But we need to do something. By catch is one thing we can have an impact on."