Low King Run Creates Balancing Act Between Fish And Subsistence

Jun 30, 2017

Salmon harvest in 2015.
Credit Shane Iverson / KYUK Public Media

Today, managers will consider whether to open the Kuskokwim to gillnets or to keep the river closed. Faced with this year’s low king salmon run, Ken Stahlnecker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that the decision isn’t easy or straightforward.

“We’re so far on the edge of what we’ve typically seen, that a real clear cut prescription of what we’ll be looking for is really difficult to define," he told KYUK on this week's Fish Talk show.

Fish and Wildlife, along with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission, is co-managing the Kuskokwim from the river’s mouth to Aniak.

Stahlnecker says, as they make their decision, the two groups will evaluate the most up-to-date estimates of king salmon from the Bethel Test Fishery and sonar station.

They'll ask questions like: “Are they continuing to go upward? Have they indicated maybe a leveling off?” said Stahlnecker.

As of Wednesday, biologists estimate that around 29,906 kings have passed the sonar station. Though the Bethel Test Fishery has seen some of its highest catches this week, the run is still on par with the river’s lowest recorded run in 2013.

Managers like Stahlnecker factor these numbers, along with the ratio of king, or Chinook, salmon to chum and reds to make their decisions.

“If that ratio is high, then that pressure that you put on the Chinook that are in the river becomes less,” he said.

On Wednesday, that number from the Bethel Test Fishery was 21 red and chum salmon for every king.

But the managers don’t just look at numbers, they also weigh cultural and social factors. Federal law allows for subsistence harvest even when runs are low.

Stahlnecker doesn’t know if the co-managers will decide an opening today, but says that more openings will be coming this season.

“We will have some opportunities, but we really are in a time where we’re concerned enough about the situation with our Chinook run, and therefore the future of our Chinook, and that’s what’s requiring these real intense restrictions right now.”

KYUK will announce the co-managers' decision when it's released.

Fishing with selective gear remains open. This gear includes beach seines, dip nets, hook and line, and fish wheels with chutes or a live box. All king salmon caught with this gear must be released alive to the water.