Kuskokwim River Residents Face Early Season Restrictions

King salmon are beginning to show up on the Kuskokwim River. All eyes are on the few kings that are appearing in the Bethel Test Fishery and in subsistence fishermen’s nets during limited 4-inch openings. At a Wednesday work session of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, members prepared for more restrictions as the run picks up and a limited directed harvest.

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2015 is predicted to be a below-average king salmon run. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)
2015 is predicted to be a below-average king salmon run. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

The river is restricted to a weekend set net fishing schedule with small mesh nets for whitefish. Federal staff recently counted 72 set nets between the Johnson River and Tuluksak. Because the nets can catch thousands of king salmon incidentally, Federal In Season Manager Neil LaLonde says they are tracking the early season fishing closely.

“There will be additional officers on the river beginning this Saturday. They’re talking to a lot of people along the river, there have been a few warnings written, we’ve seized a few nets. There was a 8.5 inch net seized, however, for the most part we’re getting good compliance on the 4-inch opportunity, and I’d like to say I think there’s a pretty positive attitude on the river this year,” said LaLonde.

Lalonde spoke at a recent meeting of the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Bethel. The working group, which meets weekly during the summer, is an advisory group made up of stakeholders up and down the Kuskokwim River.

Another below average king salmon run is in the forecast, and federal managers are aiming for the upper end of the river’s escapement goal to ensure the long-term health of the fishery. There will, however, be a directed king salmon fishing opportunity through a community permit system that begins in a week. Managers expect a total harvest of about 15-thousand king salmon this summer: eight thousand incidentally in nets and 7-thousand through the community permit system.

A few people from the middle river expressed concern about the possible level of harvest. Working Group member Dave Cannon spoke by phone from Aniak.

“Up here in the middle river and probably upper river, we’re flashing back to 2013 when it looked like things were okay, and everyone was doing fine, but when it came down to it, the upper river folks got the short end of the stick,” said Cannon.

That year started with liberal early season fishing and ultimately brought in the lowest escapement in history. Restrictions came later in the summer when more fish had not arrived after a slow start.

The river this year is split between federal management below Aniak and state management above Aniak during the king salmon run. Some members of the working group pressed state management biologist Aaron Poetter on whether he sees any serious biological problem with the projected harvest of king salmon in another down year.

“At this point there’s no really red flags, but we can’t look into that crystal ball. I think it’s a conservative approach based on the forecast, but we’ve had forecasts in the past we’ve approached differently. Given what we know and what we’ve learned, I think what we have going now is a reasonable approach,” said Poetter.

As the season intensifies, Working Group Chair Bev Hoffman expressed cautious optimism.

“I just feel we’re on a better track than past years. Am I still worried? Yes. That’s why I feel this conservation mode is important,” said Hoffman.

She says Kuskokwim kings, which have been in decline, need to make it upriver to spawning grounds if there are to be fish in the future.

A new set of tributary restrictions, meant to ensure the salmon make it up to those spawning grounds, go into effect on June 7th. There will be no gill net fishing on the Kwethluk, Kasigluk, Kisaralik, Tuluksak, and Aniak rivers and their tributaries.