Kuskokwim Fishers: Stop Commercial Openings, Call in Feds

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Fishers line up to unload at tender, Kelly-Mae near Napaskiak on Friday, July 18 during a six-hour commercial opening for chum salmon. (Photo by Sophie Evan)

The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group wants the state to end to all commercial openings for the remainder of the summer. The say despite unmet subsistence needs the state has allowed commercial salmon openings. Some upriver fishermen are fed up with the state, and want the Federal Subsistence Board to manage the river from here on out.

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Bev Hoffman is co-chair of the Kuskokwim Salmon Working group, a group of stakeholders in the fishery that’s advising managers. On Monday she sent a letter to Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell asking her to stop all commercial fishing on the river and in Kuskokwim Bay.

“We have supported openings in other years,” Hoffman wrote. “But with the situation this year, every fish is precious. And here on the lower river we’re able to use the chums quite easily. They’re beautiful, they’re silvery, they’re fresh. Further up the river where they see the effects of whatever we’re doing down here, they just were frustrated so I supported a no commercial opener this year.”

State management biologist Aaron Potter said the department is transitioning to coho (silver) salmon management and will not hold any more commercial openings until they determine there’s a surplus of cohos. That’s after 18,000 chum salmon, 2,500 sockeyes, and 5,000 silvers and 29 kings were caught in commercial nets.

On July 9 the working group voted against a commercial opening because they said subsistence needs had not yet been met, particularly upriver. Only one member of the group dissented.

Nastasha ‘Jackie’ Levi with the Village of Lower Kalskag, about 100 miles upriver from Bethel does not think there should be commercial openings until subsistence needs are met for the Native people along the entire river.

“A lot of our people are still fishing,” Levi said. “There’s even some families that are just gonna start fishing. Most of our residents have not met their needs. We haven’t been seeing the number of fish that this Bethel Test Fishery is saying is coming up here. When there’s a commercial fishing we know in two days, more or less, that we’ll hardly see any fish,” Levi said.

Subsistence fishers are relying more heavily on chum harvests this year and many say coho or silver salmon will be needed to meet needs.

Some communities want the federal managers back in control.

The Villages of Lower Kalskag and Napaimute passed resolutions Monday requesting the Federal Subsistence Board take special action and, once again exert federal jurisdiction for management of the fishery. Federal officials had managed the king run after a request by Napaskiak traditional council.

Fish and Game’s Aaron Potter said if there is a harvestable surplus of fish, he is required by law to open for commercial fishing once escapement goals are met.

“Part of our mandate is to provide that opportunity,” Potter said. “We had a processor that was interested in buying. We had fishermen that were interested in fishing. We had our surplus. We had opportunities in that back end of the chum salmon run before the coho really started getting into the system. We would be doing a disservice to commercial fishermen in that entire industry if we did not provide a harvest opportunity,” Potter said.

In the letter addressed to Commissioner Campbell, Hoffman noted that Coastal Villages Region Fund loses millions subsidizing the commercial fishery.

Commissioner Campbell’s office said she was out on travel. Jeff Regnart, the Director of Commercial Fisheries with ADF&G answered for her, saying he had received Hoffman’s letter.

“We recognize the working group and their concerns” Regnart said. “We participate in all the working group meetings. We understood where their stance was on commercial opportunity, subsistence needs being met, during the meeting. This letter reiterates that. Sometimes we’re not always on the same page. But never stops us from continuing to work to be on the same page,” Regnart said.

Managers have held three commercial chum salmon openings on the Kuskokwim River, from Bethel downstream to the mouth since July 14. And there have been more than a dozen commercial openings for chum and sockeye salmon for the Kuskokwim Bay districts since the fishery opened earlier.

The Kuskokwim Working Group meets Wednesday (July 23) afternoon.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.