2013 was the lowest run on record for Kuskokwim king salmon. This year’s forecast expected to be similar, and there’s a real concern that the future of the run is in jeopardy. That’s prompting the season to start closed to subsistence salmon fishing. The working group voted Thursday to begin the closure on May 15. In a summer where residents could face up to 47 days of closures in some scenarios, that date in conflict with the Department of Fish and Game’s preference to be closed on the 25th. Travis Ellison is the Area Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“Part of the reason the department has be resistant to close on May 15th is the 47 days. We’re recognizing the psychological impact that has on people. The number of days is important,” said Ellison.
He says the department can’t justify closing for 6” mesh gillnets that would be otherwise used for whitefish and sheefish at a time when there were very few kings in the river. Telemetry and anectodal data show that many of the earliest kings that would be caught in May are the ones headed furthest up the river.
The season starts closed. When it will first open for gillnet fishing of chum and red salmon was the subject of hours of debate. The risk for incidentally catching kings is highest around early and mid June. The group Thursday struggled on whether to set any openings in June. Working group member Barbara Carlson said a lot of residents are eager for a schedule spelling out openings, but it is hard to commit.
“It seem like it would be a lot easier to give them to people later rather than take them back once they’re already out there,” said Carlson.
A preliminarily schedule shows two four-hour periods on the last week in June going into July. The periods grow longer as you go upriver past Tuluksak. 5-foot dipnets will be an option for fishers. Managers expect to begin allowing dipnets around June 18th, and going on a daily schedule from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. All kings would have to be returned to the river alive.
No one knows yet if there will be a harvestable surplus of King Salmon or how big it would be. The Working Group wants to provide some taste early in the summer for King Salmon. And it may be literally a taste. The group heard a presentation from the Kuskokwim Native Association’s Dan Gillikan described a limited harvest of only about 600 Chinook total. That would split up among 29 villages, amounting to being about 20 fish per village in June.
In efforts to avoid repeating a problem from 2012 in which people fished below Eek Island, past the southern extreme of the Kuskokwim management area, the board directed staff to come up with a recommendation on moving the line south by ten miles. Given some fishermen’s’ willingness to skirt the regulations, Co-Chair Bev Hoffman spoke to the conservation priority.
“Nobody should be harvesting salmon anywhere out there, whether it’s a popular thing or not, it’s in decline. And the Yukon kings, the fishing [may be] effecting the Yukon kings. Right now with the decline in kings all over Alaska there should be no fishing for King Salmon. None. Anywhere. That’s my feeling. Until the population improves, until we’re assured we’re not a part of the problem,” said Hoffman.
Another change for the summer is that Area Management Biologist Travis Ellison has accepted a job in Bristol Bay and will not be managing the Kuskokwim this summer. The meeting continues Friday.