In First Drift Opening Near Bethel, Managers Balance Chinook Conservation with Opportunity

After months of planning and studying the numbers, state and federal managers will open the first six-inch-drift gillnet opening on the most densely populated stretch of the Kuskokwim river. The tremendous fishing power will be aimed at chum and sockeye salmon, but managers are moving cautiously to make sure enough king salmon make it to spawning grounds.

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No one will know for sure until well after the king salmon have stopped running, but State Kuskokwim Area Management biologist Aaron Poetter says the early conservation measures seem to have successfully moved king salmon past many of the river’s 2,000 subsistence households.

“We feel pretty comfortable with making the call that we have enough fish upriver to at least make the lower end of the goal. We want to ensure that those fish do make it to spawning grounds so we will tread lightly and implement chinook conservation as we provide additional opportunities,” said Poetter.

After not meeting escapement in two of the past four years, the priority this year is hitting the midpoint of the river’s escapement goal, about 85,000 fish. 2014 was expected to be a weak run, between 71 and 117 thousand kings. Nobody has been allowed to fish for kings since May 20th, but managers briefly opened a portion of the lower river to fishing for other salmon species last week.

Managers say Friday evening’s four-hour opener on the lower river brought out just under 200 boats. They estimate that of 11-thousand salmon caught, about 670 were king salmon. With many more boats anticipated out of Bethel and nearby communities, Federal In-Season Manager Brian McCaffery says kings will be caught in the six-inch, 25-fathom nets.

“I would anticipate this next opening that there will be some thousands of kings taken by all the boats, but given where we are in the run, we’re pretty confident the run can handle it given how many fish have already gone by,” said McCaffery.

Managers don’t have a great estimate how many boats will drop their nets in at 10 a.m. Tuesday, but Poetter says fisherman will be out in force.

“The 130 four-inch whitefish nets are probably going to pale in comparison to what we’re going to see,” said Poetter.

Restricting nets to 25 fathoms instead of the usual 50 fathoms, managers can further fine tune the amount of harvest. The latest data from the Bethel Test Fishery on Sunday shows that the chum and sockeye ratio to king salmon is about 9 to 1.

Poetter will attempt to get a rough sketch of the harvest Tuesday morning and how many kings were caught in the net before setting the next opening.

“I do expect more openings this week, we’re looking for something a little bit later on this week as we continue to roll opportunity up the river and continue to liberalize opportunity down on this lower section,” said Poetter.

The full regulations are here