Over the coming weeks, a series of gillnet fishing closures, as well as limited openings, will hit the Kuskokwim River as king salmon begin moving upstream.
The first closure begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning. The lowest end of the Kuskokwim will close to gillnets from the mouth of the river to about one half mile upstream of the Tuluksak River mouth. More closures will follow, shutting down another section of river every five days.
On May 30, the river will close from one half mile upstream of the Tuluksak River mouth to Aniak. Five days after that, on June 4, the river will close from Aniak to the Holitna River mouth. And then, on June 9, the river will close from the Holitna River mouth to the Kuskokwim headwaters.
These early closures began in 2016 as a way to protect the first pulse of king salmon from heavy fishing and give them a better chance of reaching the upper river. During these gillnet closures, a range of other live release gear can be used including hook and line, dip nets, beach seines, and fish wheels with live boxes. By regulation, any king salmon caught in this gear must be immediately released alive to the water.
Throughout these early closures, the state plans to offer weekly gillnet openings until the federal and tribal managers take over the lower river, which is scheduled to happen on June 12. These openings are meant to target non-salmon species such as whitefish and lush. To do that, fishermen are allowed to use four-inch mesh set gillnets. The nets may not exceed 60 feet in length or 45 meshes in depth and they must be set within 100 feet of the ordinary high-water mark. That mark is where the riverbank vegetation begins. This distance ensures that gillnets are set near the shore and away from the main current where salmon are more likely to swim.
The first opening will be on Wednesday, May 30, and run 12 hours from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
In other fish news, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will begin operating the Bethel Test Fishery on Friday. That’s where a crew strings 5.3-inch mesh gillnets and 8-inch mesh gillnets across the river a couple miles upstream of Bethel during high tide every day. The smaller mesh targets red and chum salmon; the larger mesh targets kings. Fish caught in these nets are harvested and counted to estimate the run size. Bethel's ONC tribe plans to distribute these fish to the community, but the details have not been confirmed.