Last year, an unprecedented 12-day King salmon fishing closure on the Kuskokwim River devastated the subsistence harvest of the fish. Instead of taking about 75,000 Kings as usual, residents only caught 20,000. However, this year should be different.
The state’s projected King salmon run for the river is about the same as last year at 200,000 fish. The subsistence harvest will also be about the same, around 75,000 fish. The real difference is in escapement numbers. It comes from a change in how fish managers look at past data. It’s technical and has to do with changing their scientific method of tracking.
“We re-evaluated the escapement goals,” says Travis Elison, the State’s Kuskokwim Area Management Biologist.
He says that research over the past decade has culminated into this new method for calculating salmon populations. It was brought forward in the fall by the department and has given managers a more comprehensive look at the history of the run.
“It’s actually a great thing for subsistence users, in particular,” Elison says.
The new data dramatically lowers the amount of King salmon needed for escapement. Last year, state and federal biologists were managing for an escapement of 127,000. This year, it’s nearly half that, at 65,000.
“It means there’s more fish to harvest given the same run size,” Elison says.
Since less fish are needed to spawn, more fish are available for fishermen. It also means that there shouldn’t be as many closures on the Kuskokwim during the upcoming King run, even if the run turns out poor, like last year.
“I don’t think they’d be as severe as the 12 day closure we had,” Elison says.
Even if there is a days-long closure, Elison says they would likely open it up to fishing in the middle of the closure.
Elison stresses one caveat though: this is all just a prediction of how the summer will probably go. The state and federal managers will end up going with what they see during the actual run. If last year’s run is any indication, what actually happens could be a far cry from what was predicted. Last year, the King run came in well below its forecast. Biologists were expecting to see about 197,000 fish, and only about half of that actually showed up.
Still, Elison says they remain cautiously optimistic because so many less fish are needed, according to their new method.
“Even if the run came in at the lower bound of 160,000, there should be enough fish for everyone to meet their needs and to meet the escapement needs,” Elison says.
State and federal managers plan to meet with the local advisory group — the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group –on May 10 about their recommendations for a preseason management strategy.