The federal waters of the lower Kuskokwim River will have a six-hour subsistence fishing opening on Friday. Openings have been limited and heavily restricted this season to conserve low king salmon stocks, and Friday’s opening will mark only the fourth opportunity to target salmon in the lower river this season. Amid conservation concerns, Kuskokwim residents are urging fellow fishermen to only fish during Friday’s opening if they need to.
The request to not fish during the opening on Friday comes after fishermen already have taken an estimated 20,000 king salmon from the Kuskokwim. That’s way more than the planned allotment of 16,000 set by tribal and federal managers at the beginning of the season. It now appears unlikely that federal and tribal escapement goals aimed at restoring the weak king run will be met, and a high proportion of kings are still in the lower river relative to other salmon species than usually seen at this time of year.
Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Nick Kameroff says that the opening in federal waters is intended for people who depend on salmon for food security and who have not been able to meet their subsistence needs because of tragedy or hard luck.
“I would encourage those of you who have enough fish on the racks and in the smokehouse to give the people who don’t have opportunity to try and fish. I know it’s a huge request,” Kameroff said on Wednesday during the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting.
The day before, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in consultation with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, approved a gillnet opening in federal waters for Friday from noon to 6 p.m. The decision was made after the commission received reports of families not being able to fish during previous openers because of issues like broken boat motors, health problems, and recent deaths. Chairman Kameroff emphasized that the Friday opening is intended for people in these unfortunate situations.
“We are still on conservation mode," he stressed, "and I think I’m the only one who states that in the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission meetings.”
The Fish Commission entered the season with a hard stance toward king salmon conservation, and Kameroff has been one of the most vocal conservation advocates. He was reluctant to approve Friday’s opening but compromised after its duration was dropped to six hours. Fish Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola says that Yup’ik people traditionally fish in June so they can dry their fish before July brings rain and humidity. Friday’s opening squeezes in another fishing opportunity before the month ends.
Members of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group voiced support for Friday’s opening in federal waters. Working Group Member Fritz Charles pointed out that state waters have already been open for days.
“If we want conservation, why open it up in state waters 24/7?" he asked. "That’s not conservation.”
Managers explain that there’s a disproportional impact on fish stocks between opening the state waters in the middle and upper river versus the federal waters of the lower river. The middle and upper river’s population is much smaller. Last year, this area harvested an estimated 2,000 king salmon for the entire season. Meanwhile, estimates show that the lower river has harvested more than 18,000 kings this season so far.
Chairwoman of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, Alissa Rogers, broke ranks and was the only member who pushed back on Friday’s opening.
“We’re on conservation, and we want to conserve for the future. And even if we do have an opening, people are going to go fishing regardless of how you feel,” she said.
Despite the large harvest so far this season, Working Group members highlight that efforts to conserve king salmon are happening voluntarily along the river. Some families are reducing their king harvests; some are releasing large females back to the water to lay eggs; and others are not fishing at all until the king salmon pass.
Correction: The Kuskokwim River king salmon run is not late this season. Instead, the ratio of kings to red and chum salmon in the river is lower than usually seen at this time of year. There are more kings in the river relative to these other salmon species than usually seen in late June. The red salmon do appear to be running later than usual. We regret the error.