Huslia pleads to rein in burgeoning pike population

A proposal aimed at reducing the number of pike around the northern Interior village of Huslia will be considered by the Board of Fisheries when it meets next week (January 12-16) at the Alpine Lodge in Fairbanks.

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Pike. Photo: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Pike. Photo: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

As written, the proposal would allow nets with 5 1/2-inch mesh to be set completely across Racetrack Slough, just upriver from Huslia, as well as sloughs connected to the Huslia River.  The nets would have to be removed by June 15, before the arrival of salmon to the area.

Blocking off sloughs in the early summer is a traditional technique for catching large numbers of pike, according to the proposal’s sponsor, Jack Wholecheese from Huslia. But the practice has been illegal since the introduction of fishing regulations in the area during the 1950s.

Wholecheese says that pike are an important subsistence resource for Huslia, because relatively few salmon run up the Koyukuk River compared to the Yukon. But recently the pike population has grown so large that the voracious predators are making a noticeable dent in the populations of other important species.

“A long time ago, they used to have more control over the big pike that eat all of our younger fish, and whitefish and ducks and muskrats and everything. We see a lot of those younger whitefish or even sheefish and lush in the stomachs of these pikes. Actually they are the barracuda of the Koyukuk River.”

Fish and Game opposes the idea of entirely blocking sloughs to target pike.  According to Yukon River Fall Season Manager Jeff Estensen, the Department is concerned about the unintended harvest of fish other than pike.

“When you are obstructing the whole, entire waterway, then you are in essence blocking the passage of other species such as grayling, whitefish, suckers or whatever. And even though you may be using a specific mesh size to target pike, which the proponent is suggesting in this [proposal], any kind of net is going to catch fish regardless if you want to or not.”

Current regulations for the Yukon Area prevent nets from stretching more than halfway across a waterway.

Huslia is in the middle of the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge, and federal managers have ultimate authority over fishing regulations within the refuge. The federal Office of Subsistence Management submitted a comment in support of the proposal, though OSM recommends that a portion of a slough should be left open for navigation and some fish passage, and that large-scale pike fishing with gillnets require a permit.

The Middle Yukon Fish and Game Advisory Committee also recommends that the Board of Fish adopt the proposal with certain amendments. The Fairbanks Advisory Committee is on record against the proposal.