State announces Kuskokwim fishing opening, but feds say it’s illegitimate

Kuskokwim River fishermen have been cast into confusion.

Federal and state agencies both manage the lower Kuskokwim River, and they are currently at odds.

The state says that the lower river is open to driftnets on Monday, June 28, from 10 .m. to 10 p.m. But federal managers say its closed, and they’re not sure how that opener will be enforced.

A persons arm is seen holding a salmon
Kuskokwim king salmon caught near Bethel, Alaska on June 12, 2018. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

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Before the summer fishing season began, the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge declared federal management of the lower Kuskokwim River salmon fishery. They did so under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to help conserve king salmon.

The feds have not issued an opening for Monday, and federal manager Boyd Blihovde said that they do not plan to. Blihovde said that the state’s announcement for the opening is illegal.

“My interpretation is that folks should not be fishing under a state announcement at all. That wouldn’t be right or legitimate,” Blihovde said.

Fish and Game Kuskokwim manager Nick Smith did not respond to KYUK’s request for comment before this story was published, to reply to Blihovde’s claims.

The state released their announcement by email on Thursday during FishTalk, a KYUK call-in show about summer fishing. Tribal and federal managers were guests on the show. Local fishermen asked how federal law enforcement officers would handle the state-announced opener on Monday.

“I don’t know the exact direction that the law enforcement officers will go,” Blihovde said. “Law enforcement has their own discretion. They don’t work for the refuge directly, so they have their supervisors that they’ll have to answer to.”

Blihovde said that he is working to get more information for fishermen before the opening.

“It’s just crazy,” said Kuskokwim fisherman Tim Andrew, who called into the FishTalk program, saying that the state is trying to exert its sovereignty over the federally managed waters. “The only people that are going to get hurt are the subsistence fishers, because they’re the ones that are going to get cited. They’re the ones that are going to be confused. And, above all, it may hurt our resources.”

The state and the federal managers also disagree on the strength of this year’s king salmon run.

In a meeting on Wednesday with federal managers and local advisors, Smith, with Fish and Game, said that the king run looks large enough for another opening. State biologists estimate that slightly more king salmon are arriving in the Kuskokwim this year than last year, but slightly fewer than in 2018. In both 2018 and 2020, there were four drift net openings. There have been three so far this year.

Blihovde, the federal manager, expressed skepticism during the meeting that the state’s evaluation of where the king run stands is completely accurate.

“Maybe our run’s early. We may have seen the strongest part of the run,” Blihovde said.

Fishermen caught fewer king salmon per drift in the most recent opener than in the opener before that. That drop could support Blihovde’s theory that the midpoint of the king salmon run has already passed and that the king run is actually smaller than the state’s estimate.

But the kings are not the only concern this season. This year’s chum run is the lowest on record since record-keeping began nearly 40 years ago, according to the Bethel test fishery. Federal biologist Spencer Rearden said he expects those numbers to stay low.

“Right now, we have concern,” he said.

The state’s decision to announce an opener on June 28 goes against recommendations by the state’s own advisory group, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. On Wednesday, the state working group voted to oppose any openings announced by the state until the feds and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission review the king and chum salmon run on Friday.

The state’s own advisory working group has opposed state management of the Kuskokwim River all season. At the beginning of the season, the working group voted for the state to take no management action in the lower river while the feds were managing it. The group has opposed state management actions in three votes since then.

Kuskokwim River Inter-tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola said that the state’s power struggle with federal and tribal managers only hurts local fishermen.

“I don’t think any fisherman on the river cares what jurisdiction they’re in. They just want to know what’s legal and when they can fish. And this is just going to cause a lot of confusion, and a lot of chaos, and a lot of hard feelings,” Peltola said.

Blihovde called the state’s decision to open on Monday reckless and disappointing. He said that he hopes that the state rescinds its announcement.

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