After a large snowfall in the Alaska and Kilbuck Mountain ranges, followed by a cool spring, the Kuskokwim River is running high, murky, and cool this season. The conditions are creating challenges for fishermen during an already highly restricted fishing season.
The middle river is running above its historical average and reached record high water levels for this week of June. Records come from 34 years of observations near the community of Crooked Creek. The Kuskokwim River is also tracking with its historical highest level of turbidity. As of Monday, visibility reached just 0.7 feet near Bethel. Water temperatures remain below average, measuring about 52 degrees Fahrenheit near Bethel this week.
The swollen river gives more room for fish to swim around nets. The current is running strong, which can make drift-netting difficult, and thick debris is snagging and tearing fishing gear. Residents of the upper river reported a high snow fall this winter, and a cool spring means that snow-pack has stuck around longer than usual.
Dan Esai is a fishermen who lives near the Kuskokwim headwaters in Nikolai. Earlier this month, he flew over the Alaska Range and reported seeing more snow in the mountains than he had seen in mid-June since the early 1970s.
Kuskokwim River conditions are the opposite of last year when water levels were historically low, clear, and warm. Last summer, fish could see and then avoid nets in the clear water, and salmon milled for long stretches in cooler areas before moving up the warm river.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game measures how many fish are moving up the river with test fisheries, weirs, and sonar. Kuskokwim residents are questioning how two years of low and then high water levels are affecting these assessment methods. Kuskokwim River Research Biologist Nick Smith says that any impacts will be determined after all the data is collected and the season has closed.