The possibility of king salmon meeting the escapement goal on the Kuskokwim this year remains low. By one estimate, it’s a coin toss. By another, it’s highly unlikely to happen.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses two methods to determine the strength of salmon runs. The main one is the Bethel Test Fishery. That involves drift-netting during high tide and making estimates using the harvests.
This year, those estimates suggest about a 50 percent chance that king salmon will meet the lowest end of the state’s drainage-wide escapement goal. That low end is 65,000 fish. If 65,000 kings can spawn, the state predicts that enough kings will return to produce sustainable runs and a robust subsistence harvest.
But Zach Liller, Fisheries Researcher with Fish and Game, says that even if that low end is met, that doesn’t mean that each tributary will meet its escapement goals.
“So for each one of those, basically flip a coin," he said. "Some will make it and some will not.”
Some of those tributaries are already marginal. They have not met escapement for consecutive years, jeopardizing the sustainability of those stocks.
The other tool Fish and Game is using to estimate salmon run size is the Bethel Sonar Station. By its count, the picture is even bleaker.
“The sonar would indicate that we would not meet the lower bound of the escapement goal,” said Liller.
The sonar information is more precise than the test fishery, but it’s the sonar station’s first year and researchers are still working out the kinks.
“So we’re still trying to learn exactly how good that project is; what exactly it’s telling us," Liller explained. "So it’s still sort of in the evaluation phase.”
The last year the Kuskowim did not meet drainage-wide escapement was 2013.