"Communities in Alaska along the Yukon River depend heavily on Chinook salmon for commercial fishing, jobs and food," said Locke on Friday. "I have determined that a fishery disaster has occurred due to consecutive years of low Chinook salmon returns. Alaska fishermen and their families are struggling with a substantial loss in income and revenues."
The Yukon River once hosted the largest migrating Chinook, chum, and coho Pacific salmon stocks in the world.
But in 2008, because of low Chinook salmon returns, the state of Alaska reduced the 2008 commercial Chinook salmon harvest to 89 percent below the recent five-year average.
No commercial Chinook salmon fishery was allowed in 2009 on the Yukon River. The state also restricted subsistence harvests.
Over 800 Alaskan fishery permit holders are directly affected by the salmon failure, along with crewmen, processing employees, and those who provide support services.
Chinook salmon in the Yukon River (Photo courtesy Yukon River Panel)
Although the reasons for the decline of Chinook salmon are not completely understood, scientists believe changes in ocean and river conditions, including unfavorable shifts in temperatures and food sources, likely caused poor survival of Chinook salmon.
Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery also may contribute to low returns. However, the impacts of ocean bycatch on Chinook returns to the Yukon River is expected to be small compared to natural causes.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has recommended measures to minimize this bycatch and NOAA's Fisheries Service is reviewing the Council's recommendations and developing proposed regulations.
"While subsistence fishing is not a factor in determining a commercial fishery failure, for Yukon River communities the commercial and subsistence fisheries are inseparable," said Doug Mecum, acting administrator of the NOAA's Fisheries Service' Alaska region.
"These communities are very isolated and do not have the economic diversity to withstand the disastrous economic impact of extremely low or no commercial harvest coupled with a decline in subsistence harvests," Mecum said.
Chinook salmon spawn in streams and rivers along the west coast of North America. The Yukon River is one of the most northerly of the major Chinook spawning rivers, hosting some of the longest upstream migrating salmon populations in the world.
The state of Alaska manages the Yukon River salmon fisheries and collects biological and economic information.
In a letter dated August 7, 2009, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell requested that Secretary Locke determine a commercial fishery failure on the Yukon River due to a fishery resource disaster.
The Association of Village Council Presidents, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and the villages of Kwethluk and Chevak also asked Secretary Locke for a disaster determination. Their request was supported by the Alaska State Legislature and Alaska's Congressional delegation.
Governor Parnell wrote, "Residents of rural communities along the river rely heavily on income from fishing and have few alternate income sources. These residents struggle with a high cost of living and limited employment opportunities, and this year they are struggling to rebuild after devastating flooding. This combination of factors makes the loss of income from the commercial fishery critical."
"The estimated average household income in the area for 2008 was $31,866, a level approaching the federal poverty line even before adjusting for the high cost of living in the area. Commercial fishing is the only identified industry in the region that brings new money into the economy," the governor wrote.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Commerce Secretary can make a determination that there has been a commercial fishery failure if requested to do so by the governor, or at the secretary's discretion.
While appropriations were not provided specifically for this failure, Locke said the Commerce Department is prepared to expedite the delivery of resources should they become available. The department is prepared to work with the State of Alaska and the affected communities on these issues.
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