The third year of fisheries co-management on the Kuskokwim River has been difficult. This summer’s low king salmon run meant some tough decisions for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission, the group that manages the fishery in conjunction with the federal government. This year's low run forced the commission to limit drift nets until most of the kings swam by. KYUK sat down with commissioners to discuss this season and their plans for moving ahead.
No question, Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola said, this year was a challenge:
“Because the river was so low, and fish were reluctant to come up the river. It’s been a very, very late Chinook run, and the numbers were so much lower than any of our indexes had ever shown.”
The commission is bound by federal law to ensure a sustainable king fishery while allowing traditional subsistence practices. The commission, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowed two gillnet openings in June and two in early July. It’s hard to balance conservation and subsistence when kings are running low.
“Some people felt like we weren’t conservative enough. Other people felt we were too liberal,” said former Executive Director and current member LaMont Albertson.
The differences of opinion seem as varied as the Kuskokwim is long.
“Trying to protect all people’s interests, up and down this river for 700 miles, and all the 32 tribes’ fisheries needs, there are some compromises," said Albertson. "Every decision we make is a compromise for one group or the other.”
When the river did open, the announcements often came less than 24 hours beforehand. Many residents said that this didn’t give them enough time to prepare, or for some to even get the word. But late notices are likely to continue, so the commission can base its openings on the most up-to-date fish numbers.
But some changes will be made for next year. Six villages had surveyors collecting information on what, and how much people were harvesting this season. The commission wants to expand that program to all of the villages.
“And that will allow our managers to make real-time decisions, which will be determined by the catch and by comparing that to the needs for escapement and the needs for subsistence users,” explained Albertson.
The commission also wants to become more accessible. Management meetings are closed to the public and media to save time. That will likely stay the same, but the commission plans to begin holding teleconferences and public discussions.
The commissioners realize that closing the river in early summer is affecting subsistence practices, but people have found strategies to adapt to wet weather like using fans to dry fish.
“And then with flies," said Director Peltola, "I’ve seen a lot of people using canopies with mesh siding. I’ve seen people using smoke under their drying racks. Someone said she used Clorox on her poles, and she puts it around the door of her smokehouse. And of course, the tried and true method of just using a lot of salt when you brine.”
The commission is still growing and learning how to shoulder the responsibility of managing king salmon, something done by the state and federal government for decades. The commission hopes that they're just at the beginning of tribal resource co-management on the Kuskokwim.
“There’s chums; there’s reds; there’s silvers; there’s moose," said Albertson. "We’re hoping we’re going to have buffalo in not too many years. We’ve got muskox in the area. We’ve got all sorts of resources here in the valley that we ought to have co-management. There should be collaborative management of all these resources.”
The Commission thanked everyone for their patience and cooperation with the management decisions made this summer.