Yukon salmon in trouble

Freshly caught King and Chum salmon

PHOTO GALLERY: Climate change threatens Yukon salmon

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: When we talk about climate change, we can't forget about the animal world. A conservation group says unchecked global warming could wipe out more than two-thirds of the bird species in some places. That report came out at the United Nations' climate talks today in Kenya. The UN is also worried about disease, in fish, for example. Reporter Sam Eaton from our Sustainability Desk went to Alaska to find out more.


SAM EATON: Alaska's mighty Yukon River holds one of the last wild salmon runs in North America. The dams and pollution that have all but shut down salmon fisheries in the lower 48 are nonexistent here, but fishermen say despite the pristine conditions, the famed Yukon salmon are in trouble.
STAN ZURAY: Now this is a big female and as you can see this is really sick flesh.

Stan Zuray is gutting his catch on a remote stretch of the Yukon River near Fairbanks. He says many of the giant king salmon he lands are inedible because of a disease called Ichthyophonus. It riddles their flesh with white, fruity-smelling spores that sour the meat.

ZURAY: There's not a single fisher I know that would cut something like this for people food.

Ichthyophonus is common throughout the world's oceans but has only recently become a problem.

University of Washington fisheries professor Richard Kocan has looked at records of the disease going back about a century.

RICHARD KOCAN: And you rarely ever see it described or mentioned, but since the mid-1980s it's suddenly showing up in species everywhere. It's showing up in rockfish, it's showing up in herring. We've seen reports now that it's in Sockeye salmon in British Columbia. So it's appearing in fish all up and down the Pacific coast.

Kocan says climate change is the likely cause. The Yukon River has warmed nine degrees over the last 20 years. Summer water temperatures are reaching nearly lethal levels for these cold water fish, stressing their immune systems and making them vulnerable to outbreaks.

KOCAN: When the conditions are just right in the environment, the advantage goes to the pathogen.

Kocan's research suggests that as many as two-thirds of the infected salmon aren't making it to the spawning grounds, but Alaska fisheries managers have yet to do anything about it because they say the science is inconclusive.

In Fairbanks, fish processor Virgil Umphenour worries it will be too late before anything is done. He says Ichthyophonus is already digging into his bottom line. He buys whole fish directly from fishermen, which means he doesn't know which ones are diseased until he cuts them into fillets back at the warehouse.

VIRGIL UMPHENOUR: So if they are, then they go in the trash can and we give them away to dog mushers as dog food is what we do. So it's a total loss, those fish are, financially.

Umphenour says lately he's had to toss as many as half the salmon he buys.

In Fairbanks, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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