On the Kuskokwim River, it’s not an easy decision to travel during breakup. There are chores to be done to prepare for summer, and flooding is a constant risk that keeps people close to their homes, standing guard. But on Monday and Tuesday, a group traveled to Bethel from nearly every village along the river to discuss how to protect the fish that swim by.
Thirty-three tribes live along the Kuskokwim and share all the fish within it. Four years ago, the tribes came together to form the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. It was a historic agreement that allowed tribes to co-manage the Lower Kuskokwim salmon under federal jurisdiction alongside federal managers at the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Biologists predict another year of low king salmon returns lies ahead for the Kuskokwim. At the Commission’s annual meeting, the group laid out how to approach this season.
“There was a consensus that we are managing for conservation, and there is a consensus that we want to rebuild our salmon stocks and have abundance again," explained Mary Peltola, the Commission’s Executive Director.
To show that commitment to conservation, the Commission voted down a resolution to allow eight-inch mesh gillnets on the river. The larger mesh would catch the larger fish, which carry more eggs. And commission members want those fish to make it to the spawning grounds, much as they might desire them for their smokehouses.
Three other resolutions passed at the meeting. The Commission voted to add a fourth in-season manager to represent Bethel, Napakiak, Napaskiak, and Oscarville. The Bethel Orutsararmiut Native Council appointed Robert Lekander to the seat. He will join the three in-season managers representing the Upper, Middle, and Lower Kuskokwim.
The Commission also passed a new communications policy. It says the Commission speaks as one public voice, and dissenting tribes must consult with the Commission before publicizing their opinion. "We can't have individuals or one tribe speaking on behalf of the entire 33-member tribal commission," said Peltola. "Tribes can certainly speak on their own behalf, but not on the behalf of other tribes without a full discussion."
The annual meeting lasted two days and unlike most fish meetings, there weren’t any PowerPoint presentations or reams of data handed out. Instead, Executive Director Mary Peltola says, it was a conversation.
“We talked about some of the rules that are guiding principles that define our relationship with salmon," Peltola said. "We talked about tribal stewardship and governance of Kuskokwim River salmon fisheries as the commissioners would define it.”
The commissioners hope to unite people on the 700-mile river and overcome long-standing divides separating the lower, middle, and upper segments. The salmon arrive in each area at different times; when to fish and how that affects villages upstream are old conflicts.
“So that’s always kind of an ongoing relationship-building exercise is making sure that people from the communities across the river know each other, and understand each other, and can communicate well with each other,” Peltola said.
Also at the meeting, the Commission elected four of the seven unit representatives to the body’s Executive Council.
- Unit 1: Claude "Joe" Petruska of Nikolai was re-elected to represent the tribes of Nikolai and McGrath.
- Unit 3: Gerald Kameroff of Upper Kalskag was re-elected to represent the tribes of Napaimute, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, and Upper and Lower Kalskag.
- Unit 5: Robert Lekander of Bethel was elected to represent the tribes of Bethel, Napakiak, Napaskiak, and Oscarville.
- Unit 7: Arthur Lake of Kwigillingok was elected to represent the tribes of Tuntutuliak, Eek, Quinhagak, Kongiganak, Kwigillingok, Kipnuk, and Chefornak.
New this summer, the Commission will hold weekly teleconferences every Monday to update people on management decisions and to gather river observations. The first teleconference will be May 21.
There is one large caveat to this story. The Commission will only co-manage the river if the feds take over management of the Lower Kuskokwim from the state under the federal government's authority to manage subsistence. That’s what’s happened the past several years of low king salmon runs and appears likely to happen again. The Federal Subsistence Board will make that decision next week on May 16 and 17.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Kuskokwim River is 900 miles long. We regret the error. This article has also been revised to clarify the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's communications policy.