This year's Yukon River Chinook salmon run will likely be small, according to forecast

Officials on both sides of the border are concerned that the run will once again fail to meet conservation and harvest goals. 

Officials on both sides of the border are concerned that the run will fail to meet conservation goals

Chinook salmon in the Whitehorse fish ladder viewing chamber. U.S. and Canadian experts are forecasting a small run on the Yukon River this year, with the most likely run size consisting of 57,000 Canadian-origin fish. (William Twardek)

The 2021 Yukon River Chinook salmon run will likely be a small one, according to pre-season forecasts. Officials on both sides of the border are concerned that the run will once again fail to meet conservation and harvest goals. 

Somewhere between 42,000 and 77,000 Canadian-origin fish are anticipated to make the journey from the Bering Sea this year, Alaska and Yukon experts told attendees during the Yukon River Panel's pre-season meeting on Tuesday. The most likely run size would be 57,000, they said.

That's smaller than the pre-season outlooks for 2020 and 2019 — and both those years ended disastrously when it came to getting enough salmon across the border.

Under an international treaty, Canada and the U.S. are supposed to work together to ensure at least 42,500 fish make it to their spawning waters in Yukon. That spawning escapement goal hasn't been met since 2018 — last year, only about 33,000 Chinook made it. 

More fishing restrictions 'likely' in Alaska

"Based on our outlook and recent escapements, our management will be more restrictive than it was in 2020," Denna Jallen, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's (ADFG) summer season management biologist, told meeting attendees.

"In 2020 we had fishing restrictions —  in 2021, we're likely going to have more fishing restrictions."

Alaska will be "managing conservatively" this year until at least the mid-point of the run, Jallen explained. Depending on what the actual numbers look like, the state may implement full fishing closures.

It's highly unlikely that the run will allow for a full subsistence harvest in Alaska, she said, and while fishermen will be allowed to catch other species, ADFG would be putting gear restrictions in place as the first group of Chinook make their way upstream. 

Besides getting enough fish into Canada, Jallen said there have also been worries about getting enough Chinook into Alaska tributaries. The forecast for the entire Chinook run is 102,000 to 189,000 fish, according to Jallen. Runs smaller than 160,000 often fail to meet escapement goals. 

'Very limited' Yukon First Nations harvest

Jesse Trerice, Yukon River fishery manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the 2021 outlook didn't "bode well for Canadian harvest opportunities." 

Only Yukon First Nations have been allowed to fish for Chinook on the Yukon River for years now due to steadily-declining run sizes. Trerice said they would likely have a "very limited" fishery this year, with public angling and commercial and domestic fisheries closed as usual.

"We can assume that there's a reasonable probability that the Canadian harvest share could be less than 1,400 Chinook, which is about less than a fifth of a full First Nation fishery allocation," she said. 

Depending on the in-season numbers, there could also be a full closure on harvest if the number of Canadian-origin Chinook comes in at the lower end of the forecast and the spawning escapement goal can't be met.

Chinook salmon typically begin entering the Yukon River in late May and June.