Chum runs dwindle up drainage and across the state
Herman Creek enhanced run to end
October 29, 2020
This year’s chum salmon return to the Chilkat River drainage was a record low, with much of the state also experiencing dismal returns of both wild and hatchery stocks. Herman Creek, a popular site along Porcupine Road, won’t see an enhanced chum return next year as the incubation program shut down four years ago.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Haines commercial fisheries biologist Nicole Zeiser said poor ocean survival caused by environmental conditions is likely driving the low returns.
“It could be temperature, predation, lack of prey. We just don’t know,” Zeiser said.
Since 1999, the escapement goal for wild Chilkat River chum salmon has been between 75,000 to 250,000 fish. This is the first year that the return has failed to meet the goal.
“The run is over, as far as what we see in the fishwheels in the lower river,” Zeiser said. “If you take what we caught, we’re only looking at an estimated escapement of 22,500 fish, well below the lower bound of the escapement goal of 75,000 fish.”
The escapement is based on an expansion from the total fishwheel catch. This fall, only 348 were counted in the wheels.
Residents have also been noticing a poor showing of chums in Herman Creek, a Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association spawning channel and incubation site constructed as long as about 20 years ago. That’s because NSRAA stopped incubating fish in the channel four year ago, so the only fish returning are six-year old spawners.
“We haven’t had staff up there in several years now,” NSRAA general manager Scott Wagner said. “Our board defunded that project four years ago. It was costing more to fund the program than it was giving back to the program. It wasn’t a net gain.”
Wagner said it cost about $45,000 to run the program which consisted of setting up weirs, counting fish and filling the incubation boxes. He said that they were in discussions with Chilkoot Indian Association to take over the project, but the pandemic interrupted discussions.
“Each year a different age class returns and naturally this year only one age class is present, which is exactly why there’s fewer fish,” Wagner said. “I’m pretty sure this is the last year of returns.”
Zeiser said Fish and Game staff walk the NSRAA systems on Herman Creek weekly during the fall run. On the peak week of returns, they counted 280 chums, compared to 4,165 last year during the run’s peak week.
Zeiser said the poor chum run could affect valley eagles that have access to chum as late as December because of an upwelling around 21 Mile Haines Highway that prevents the river from freezing.
“The eagles can still feed on coho but with less chum around, it’s obvious the eagles will have a harder time catching fish,” Zeiser said.