We’re beginning to get a look at the number of king salmon that are reaching their spawning grounds in Kuskokwim river tributaries. The data comes after another summer of conservation restrictions on king salmon fishing. The numbers allow subsistence families to see the results of their sacrifices and for fishery managers to gauge the effects of their decisions.
There isn’t much data yet, but a promising number of kings have already passed through one tributary of the Kuwkokwim: the George River, where the mid-range of the state’s goal for kings getting to spawning grounds has almost been reached. As of Monday, 2,350 kings had passed through the weir. Aaron Tiernan, Kuskokwim Area Fishery Manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, expects those numbers to climb.
“There’s still fish moving," Tiernan explained, "so we’ll see how that plays out for the remainder of the season.”
The Department of Fish and Game is operating six weirs to measure salmon escapement in Kuskokwim River tributaries this summer. High water has meant that only two of those weirs have been able to accurately count the salmon passing upstream: the George River and Salmon River Pitka’s Fork weirs. As of Monday, more than 2,300 kings had passed through the weir at Pitka’s Fork in the middle watershed. The state does not have a weir escapement goal for this tributary, but does have an aeriel survey goal.
The weirs were scheduled to begin counting fish in at the beginning of the month, but high water meant that salmon could swim over the remaining weirs. The Kwethluk weir just became “fish tight” on Tuesday. That means that all the fish swimming up the Kwethluk are now passing through the weir rather than possibly swimming over the gate. For some weirs further up the Kuskokwim, where few kings have passed, the state expects to be able to reconstruct the escapement data. The state also has a backup plan for all the weirs.
“Beginning Friday, aerial surveys are going to start, weather permitting,” Tiernan said. That means biologists will begin flying over the tributaries, counting the salmon from the air. "And hopefully by next week we’ll have a decent idea of what we’re seeing for escapements,” Tiernan continued.
King salmon have largely moved past the lower river. The state-operated Bethel Test Fishery has caught kings in the single digits every day since last week. Meanwhile, runs of chum and red salmon continue to build through the lower river. By historical average run timing, more than 98 percent of kings and 84 percent of chums have passed Bethel. Usually by this time, 99 percent of reds have already passed Bethel. This year, however, the reds arrived late.