Management of the Kuskowkim salmon fishery will look much the same as last year, according to plans unveiled by fishery managers at a meeting this week in Anchorage. The early closure to help kings swimming to the spawning waters are still in place, but the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group recommends starting the rolling closures five days later. The idea is to begin them in the Lower Kuskokwim Sections 1 and 2 on May 25 instead of May 20. That would push the closure in Section 3 to May 30, Section 4 to June 4, and the closure in Section 5 would be on June 9. According to Alaska Board of Fish regulations, the early king closure would end June 11.
This plan is an attempt to help people get better access to whitefish and sheefish.
The closures already allowed for weekly openings with 4-inch mesh to target whitefish. Many people want bigger mesh, but the mesh size is in the Board of Fish regulations and those who want to change it would have to take their concerns to the Board.
Others at the table, like Lisa Feyereisen from upriver in Crow Village, says that people on the upper river think that the use of 4-inch mesh has targeted whitefish too much, and they are not seeing as many as they used to see in the river.
“By pushing people to use one type of gear,” says Feyereisen, ”they were actually hurting an alternative species of fish. That was not intentional, but that’s what happened.”
Others, like working group member Lamont Albertson, say that they would like to see the numbers supporting that claim.
“I really appreciate those anecdotal references, but I’d like to hear some research or hear something that’s been done. My experience in catching whitefish up in the mid-river in the Aniak area is there’s quite a few whitefish around up there,” said Albertson.
Another difference this year is an in-season weekly Monday call-in scheduled by the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The hope is to provide a free 1-800 number for people to use on Mondays during the season. The Commission’s Mary Peltola says that the idea is to get all the concerns on the table before managers meet the following day to discuss management of the river’s fishery.
“The Fish Commission would like to have a public teleconference on Mondays at 10 [a.m.] during the fishing season so that we can hear from people all along the river to both share information and get information. And then all of that can be used by the in-season managers when they meet with the Feds.”
The projected run of king salmon this summer is at or a little below the run last year, and those at the working group meeting in Anchorage continued to support rebuilding stocks by getting as many fish to spawning grounds as possible. No one knows exactly what it will take because the king return numbers are continuing to be low. Bill Bechtol with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission says that in the past, king numbers would bounce back more quickly. That is not what is happening now.
“We’ve had a couple of major collapses in the past, and within a couple of years we’ve seen the stock jump right back up and that hasn’t happened this year. It has, if anything, looks like it’s tapered off quite a bit in terms of it started to climb and then it dropped off a bit.”
The kings swimming up the Kuskokwim this year are part of the population that were spawned in 2013.
“Which really was the lowest year, in terms of spawners, that we’ve ever seen on record,“ Bechtol added. ”In 40-some years, that was the lowest we’ve ever seen.”
Many of the village representatives at the working group were looking at ways to help strengthen the king run, while at the same time fill their freezers. It was suggested that they target reds, which are increasing in numbers in the Kuksokwim, along with silvers, but Mike Williams of Akiak says it’s tough because everyone is wanting what they are used to. They crave the taste of kings.
“It’s pretty hard to make those adjustments, and maybe each community can begin talking about what we can do to use other species other than Chinook, but it’s pretty hard. It’s what we were taught and it’s pretty hard to change.”
As in past years, Akiak is asking the federal government to take over management of the king fisheries on the river. A public hearing on that request is scheduled for April 19 at the cultural center in Bethel. A separate request by the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to again federalize management of the section of river flowing through the refuge comes up for review by the Federal Subsistence board just before the season begins.