Management of Kuskokwim king salmon uncertain after Dunleavy order

A river
Kuskokwim River at Bethel on January 25, 2014. (Ben Matheson/KYUK)

State and federal fishery managers are waiting on more information to determine which government entity will have the authority to manage king salmon on the lower Kuskokwim River this summer.

Since 2014, federal officials have managed the harvest of kings in the lower Kuskokwim to conserve the salmon species at the request of local subsistence users. Federal officials managed the harvest in federal waters within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s unclear if federal managers will have that authority this summer.

Last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy sent a letter to President Joe Biden saying that the state was taking control of Alaska’s submerged lands beneath navigable waters, citing the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sturgeon v Frost, which affirmed the state’s right to manage travel on a navigable river. Alaska’s congressional delegation supports Dunleavy’s assertion. The Sturgeon decision includes language that upholds federal authority over subsistence management in waters that pass through federal lands. Dunleavy said that the state will release maps showing which waterways the state plans to assert control over.

Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde would serve as the Kuskokwim River federal fishery manager if federal authority assumed management of the lower Kuskokwim king salmon. Blihovde said that he and his staff are waiting to see if the refuge waters will be included on the state’s forthcoming maps.

“Until forced to do something differently,” Blihovde said, “we will continue to work very hard to collaboratively manage the Kuskokwim River with all partners who have a stake in its conservation.”

Charles Brazil, state fishery manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that the management authority under the new state policy “has not been fully determined. However, the department’s intent is to take the same management approach this season as in recent years.”

At stake is co-management with Kuskokwim tribes. Federal managers have an agreement to consult with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission on salmon management. State managers do not have this obligation.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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