Bethel’s Native Tribe, Orutsararmuit Native Council, held a public hearing seeking input on Chinook fishing restrictions next summer.
It’s part of a call out to tribes along the river to help come up with management options after poor King salmon runs the last several years.
The weather was blowing sleet the night of the meeting but still the room managed to fill up. The issue of King salmon–even in the month of November–is on people’s minds. It’s a large part of the local diet.
Doug Molyneaux has been a salmon researcher on the Kuskokwim for 23 years. He started the public hearing off by sharing data.
“Half of the total King salmon subsistence harvest for the entire state of Alaska comes from the Kuskokwim area,” Molyneaux says. “Half for the entire state. That’s how important it is here.”
He said the river’s subsistence harvest equals about 80,000 Kings a year, two-thirds of it is taken in the first 70 miles of the river, one-third by Bethel and one-third by villages downriver. During poor runs, like the last few years, it doesn’t leave a lot of fish for the next 600 miles upriver.
“If your total run is really low and you’re still taking a high harvest on the lower river, they’re seeing just really low densities of fish,” Molynueaux says, “and it takes them a lot longer to try to get the fish they want for subsistence.”
The state’s best pre-season model predicted a run much different than what actually took place. Molyneaux says it did not work the last two years.
“The forecast was for almost twice what actually came back to the Kuskokwim River,” Molyneaux says.
Bev Hoffman of Bethel moderated the public hearing. She’s the Co-Chair of the local advisory group the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group which has asked the river’s tribes to help find solutions.
“How many people want to see it completely closed? Raise your hand,” Hoffman asked the crowd. “How many people would like a window of opportunity? Raise your hand.”
The vote was close but a few more wanted a chance to fish. Still, several people spoke out in support of conserving now for future generations.
Henry Hunter Sr. is on the tribe’s subsistence board. He says past bans on moose hunting worked well.
“They bounced back because we had that moratorium. You see a lot of moose here,” Hunter Sr. says. “I’d like to see a moratorium closure on the Kings too.”
His sentiments were echoed by several other tribal members including Mike Shantz. He says he voluntarily has not targeted King salmon for four years.
“If we don’t stop it right now, there’s going to be nothing left and it might be too late already,” Shantz says. “You know, it might not ever come back.”
The tribe’s subsistence board came up with possible options for restrictions many of which were similar to what the local advisory group had compiled. They include fishing schedules, starting a permitting system for who could fish when, and gear restrictions.
Mary Sattler is from Bethel.
“I think 8 inch gear should be banned because that really is targeting the big Kings,” Sattler says.
Bill Kristovich with Bethel’s tribe says the public hearing was a good discussion but they won’t come up with a consensus on restrictions until they hear from more members of the public.
The Working Group plans to come up with restriction recommendations for state and federal managers by the first of the year.