Subsistence fishing is open indefinitely on the Kuskokwim River. But that hasn’t been the norm this summer, as the river underwent two management regimes —state and federal—and strict closures for two species. Lower river fishermen are adjusting to the new reality of Kuskokwim subsistence—where conservative management is now the status quo.
On a sunny Saturday after a four hour subsistence opener, Joe Green and his two kids shuttle salmon up the steep banks at the Bethel small boat harbor from the skiff to the back of their pickup.
These openers are critical for Green as he fishes for a total of four families.
“This year we’re shooting for anything. The feds and the government shock you. They screw up everything for you. So we get what we can,” said Green.
On top of his chums, he caught just shy of a dozen red salmon and says he’ll be freezing fish for the first time this summer. It’s a summer of flexibility on the Kuskokwim. Unprecedented king salmon restrictions were followed up by more closures to protect a weak chum run, which so far at the Bethel Test Fisheryranks among the lowest in recent history.
Alissa Joseph works on the fisheries staff for Bethel’s Tribe, ONC and is traveling the river and talking with fishermen in the Bethel area’s 150, or so fish camps.
“We don’t go to fish camps to look at their racks, we go to get their information and how they did. We don’t need to know how many fish they got. We just want to know how subsistence is going, how it’s working for them, and how we can be of assistance as advocates for them,” said Joseph.
The information goes to state and federal managers and the Kuskokwim Working Group.
Joseph was checking in on subsistence fishermen like Nicholai Evan. At his Napaskiak fish camp, his whole family is cutting and preparing caught in the opening. He normally catches 100 kings every summer. So far this year, he’s only caught 10. How he plans to make up the deficit?
“Caribou, moose, seal, geese, swans. My part of life is subsistence, I hardly go to the store, once in a great while,” said Evan.
Nearby David Nicholai reports that his family also got significantly fewer kings than normal—but it’s enough for them to get by.
“Enough, good enough for fish, there are lots of fish out there. Lots of chums, lots of reds, some king salmon,” said Nicholai.
Besides being large, rich, and historically abundant, king salmon are also prized for their immaculate timing. They’re first, when the weather is clear and dry. But this point in the season, it’s clear that things have changed.
Under the roof of Marie Andrew’s drying rack, the Napaskiak resident is busy putting chums and reds up to dry. The Kuskokwim red salmon fortunately this year came on strong, and relatively late. But this time of year, Andrew is starting to see flies.
“During that smokey time, when the wild fire smoke was around there wasn’t that much, but lately I’ve seen lots, like today when the sun was out,” said Andrew.
She says that she’s typically done by now in a normal king year. Near Bethel, Sugar Henderson is looking forward to silvers. She says her family took part in the limited community permit system at the start of the year and was allocated a dozen kings.
“I normally do strips with my kings and dryfish with my silvers. But knowing I’d only get 12 kings I did all dryfish. And then with our pressure cooker, we figured we would try strips with silvers. Kind of backwards,” said Henderson.
After several rocky years of poor king returns and the stop and go restrictions, Henderson has had to adapt.
“We’ve learned to adjust to what we get. I’m not one yelling and screaming ‘we need our kings, we need our kings’! We do need our kings, but I understand the fact they need to replenish, so we’ve just adjusted ourselves, our lifestyle, to what we could get,” said Henderson.
And as long as Kuskokwim salmon runs and regulations defy prediction, summer fishing plans will remain a moving target.