Today is the Kuskokwim River’s first 6-inch gillnet opening of the season. From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., fishermen can drift and set net along the entire main stem and most tributaries. In many lower river communities, when fishermen bring their harvests to camp or to the harbor, surveyors will be there to ask questions about their catch. The surveys are anonymous and are conducted by people who live in the community. Surveyors will be in Tuntutuliak, Napaskiak, Napakiak, Kwethluk, Akiachak, and Akiak.
The survey program employs 10 local people in their late teens to mid-30s for the summer and is funded by the Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association. It started last year as a way to collect real-time data on how many fish are being taken from the river. The program has bigger goals as well. It aims to build local ownership over fishing data, to train local people in data collection, and to provide a way for fishermen to communicate with managers through the local surveys.
The surveyors will be out during every fishing opening this season. As a preview, here are the questions they’ll be asking:
- When did you start fishing?
- What was your ending time?
- What is type of net did you use: drift net or set net?
- How long was the net in the water?
- What’s the length of the net and the mesh size?
- How many king salmon did you harvest? And how close are you to meeting your king harvest goal this year?
- How many chum salmon did you harvest? And how close are you to meeting your chum harvest goal this year?
- How many sockeye salmon did you harvest? And how close are you to meeting your sockeye harvest goal this year?
- Harvest numbers for other fish caught like sheefish and whitefish?
- Do you have any questions or comments to relay to the fishery managers?
Surveyors will also be in Bethel at the surrounding fish camps and the boat harbor. The Bethel Orutsararmiut Native Council has run this program since 2001 and has built long-standing relationships with many subsistence families over the years. Here are the questions Bethel fishermen can expect:
- What is your name?
- What community do you live in?
- Is there another person I can talk to if you aren't available?
- What’s a good number I can reach you on?
- How many different households does this fish camp provide for?
- Compared to last year, how have your harvest goals for king salmon changed?
- Compared to last year, how have your harvest goals for chum salmon changed?
- Compared to last year, how have your harvest goals for sockeye salmon changed?
- Have you started fishing yet?
- Date you started fishing this year?
- Are you an ASL (age, sex, and length) sampler for king salmon?
- What things have you noticed this season that should be considered by fisheries managers? (For example: water level, ice, bird activity, winds, fish behavior.)
All the data from both survey programs is sent to the tribal, federal, and state managers to help them decide when to schedule the next gillnet opening. It appears that the goal of building local ownership of the data is being met. Many of the surveyors who participated in the program last year returned.
“Joining this program helped me to understand that they [the managers] are trying to conserve the fish for the future," said Colleen Andrew of Kwethluk, who's surveying for her second year. Andrew enjoys the work. She gets to be on the river and talk with fishermen about one of her favorite topics: subsistence. And she gets to supply the data that directly influences the management of the fishery.
“‘Cause I want my kids to have fish, and their kids, and so on," Andrew said. "I think it’s important.”