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Feds Reject Requests To Block Early Gillnet Openings In Lower Kuskokwim

Shane Iverson

The state-sanctioned 4-inch gillnet fishing opening on the Kuskokwim River will proceed as scheduled today, and so will the one next week.

Tuesday saw back-to-back meetings that could have blocked these openings, but each ended with the same result: management of the Kuskokwim will proceed as planned. The state will continue to manage the entire Kuskokwim River until the federal government takes control of the federal waters of the lower portion on June 12.

The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission wanted the feds to take immediate control of the lower river to block the early gillnet openings and prevent incidental harvest of king salmon.

On Tuesday, the Commission’s in-season managers met with the man who has this authority. Ken Stahlnecker manages the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and can take over the Kuskokwim federal waters when a traditional resource, like king salmon, requires conservation. But for Stahlnecker, the urgency was not there.

“In reality, the risk to the continued viability of the Chinook salmon population resulting from these two openers would be fairly minor,” he said.

Stahlnecker pointed to information collected last year showing that only about 200 kings were harvested during the three gillnet openings before June 12.

“While there wasn’t a lot of data behind it, it was essentially discussions between scientists to make a best estimate based on the best available science, which admittedly is limited,” Stahlnecker said.

The feds plan to collect more data during the two upcoming openings. But as the first opening begins, a complete system for collecting the data is not in place. Stahlnecker says that today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will try to fly an aerial survey to count the number of nets on the river. But he says ideally that information would be paired with data gathered from monitors on the ground talking with fishermen.

Stahlnecker claims that the decision to maintain state management until June 12 and to continue the two gillnet openings before that time were made in agreement with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in-season managers.

But Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola explained that the agreement was made between two groups with unequal power: Stahlnecker, who has the authority to take over the federal waters, and the Fish Commission, which only gains management authority once the waters have been federalized.

“He made it clear that there was no intent to federalize the river," Peltola said. "So what were the in-season managers supposed to do? They basically have to agree with him.”

The Commission is taking a firm stance on conservation this season. The group wants three-quarters of the king salmon run to reach their spawning grounds to rebuild the stocks. That would leave only 6,000 to 25,000 kings available for subsistence harvest; taking any amount early in the season, even incidentally, they regard as a concern.

“We felt that our points were substantive," Peltola said,  "that 200 to 300 Chinook bycaught does have an impact on the run."

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its decision, the Federal Subsistence Board took up a similar request submitted by a private citizen, LaMont Albertson. Albertson is a longtime, former Aniak and Bethel resident who is heavily involved in Kuskokwim fisheries. He also asked the feds to take immediate control of the lower Kuskokwim and limit fishing to Kuskokwim residents. The Board denied his request.

The gillnet opening today runs 12-hours from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The opening is meant to target non-salmon species such as whitefish and sheefish. Fishermen are allowed to use 4-inch mesh set gillnets that may not exceed 60 feet in length or 45 meshes in depth. The nets must be set within 100 feet of the ordinary high-water mark, which 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.

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.