The future of the Kuskokwim King run in jeopardy

by Angela Denning-Barnes on August 29, 2013

Kuskokwim Chinook salmon–or Kings as they are known locally–did not make it to the spawning grounds this year as managers had expected. Counting projects are showing the lowest escapements in history for nearly all of the river’s tributaries. Just how bad the run has been was discussed in a five-hour meeting in Bethel this week.

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Beverly Hoffman is Co-Chair of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group.

“We are in a crisis here on the Kuskokwim,” Hoffman says. “While the lower river did very well, people upriver did not get King salmon.”

That’s the crux of the issue. The river saw few fishing restrictions this year and lower river residents loaded up. Some families caught, cut, dried and smoked over 100 King salmon for the winter. That’s not a lot compared to what they’re used to. But it is a lot compared to last year when the run was heavily restricted in order to meet escapement goals.

The escapement goals were cut way back this year. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game changed the model for coming up with the escapement figures so the goals dropped from about 127,000 to 65,000 fish. But even the lower number was not met.

Kevin Schaberg is a research biologist for the State.

“You know, we were kind of caught off guard with how the run materialized this year,” Schaberg says.

He and other managers thought the King run was late this year but it ended up dropping off unexpectedly.

“Based on the management strategy going into the season, we thought we had enough fish for subsistence and escapement,” Schaberg says.

The subsistence needs on the Kuskokwim River haven’t changed much in decades. River residents have consistently needed about 75,000 King a year. What has changed is the concentration of the population. While some upriver villages have grown smaller, Bethel’s population has expanded from about 1,000 people to over 6,000 in the last 50 years.

Federal fish managers are also concerned with the low returns.Tom Doolittle is the Acting Manager for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge which covers the Kuskokwim River. He says this year’s run is just the latest in a string of consecutive poor years.

“It’s bad,” Doolittle says. “You have to obviously look at conservation measures first and foremost.”

And restrictions are in the forecast. Schaberg says the State will likely impose restrictions at the beginning of next season and those measures could see support from the river’s residents.

In this week’s Bethel meeting, the Working Group heard from dozens of residents concerned about the King run. Several tribes have submitted resolutions asking for conservation. The Working Group has about 20 recommendations they are looking at: everything from gear restrictions to fishing schedules to limiting choke points on the Lower River.

What everyone seems to agree on is that everyone has to be part of the solution.

“There’s just too much pressure by too many people on the King salmon and we cannot sustain the population with that kind of pressure,” Hoffman says.

The run has changed over the decades by commercial fishing, on-going subsistence needs, and likely other unknown factors in the sea. There are fewer large fish returning. Yet, Doolittle remains optimistic. He says that the refuge will be consulting with the region’s tribes to come up with solutions.

“I always look at this fishery as being one of the remaining best wild runs of Chinook salmon in the world,” Doolittle says.

Doolittle and others living on the Kuskokwim just don’t want to see the King run disappear like so many others have.

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