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Lower Kuskokwim King Salmon Harvest Under Federal And Tribal Management

A fisherman pulls a king salmon from the Kuskokwim River during a subsistence fishing opening on June 12, 2018.
Katie Basile

The lower Kuskokwim River king salmon harvest will once again be under federal management this summer. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge announced on May 7 that it will manage the harvest in consultation with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.



Another low king salmon run is expected this year. State biologists estimate 94,000 to 150,000 kings will return to the Kuskokwim. That’s similar to last year’s return, which saw low numbers for not only kings, but also chum salmon. 


To conserve the kings, federal management will begin June 1 and last until mangers determine that there is no more king conservation concern this season. On June 1, the Kuskokwim River and its salmon-spawning tributaries will close to gillnets and king salmon harvest. During the first half of the month, the mainstem will open for three set-net openings and two driftnet openings.


Federal and tribal managers have set an escapement goal of 110,000 kings reaching their spawning grounds. That’s more than the lower range of the number of kings state biologists forecast will return to the Kuskokwim this year, but forecasts are only educated estimates. Last year, fewer kings returned than initially forecast. The year before, more returned than forecast.


Federal managers have overseen the Kuskokwim king salmon harvest since 2014. Federal regulators can be more restrictive than state management, and can limit king harvest to only local subsistence users.


This year, the king harvest will be managed by Boyd Blihovde, manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Blihovde arrived in Bethel last year, and this will be his first fishing season on the Kuskokwim.


“I’m a guest here, and I feel that way, and I think I’ll be that way for the duration of my time in Bethel," Blihovde said on May 6 during a public hearing on a proposal for federal management of the Kuskokwim king harvest.


During the hearing, the federal manager made an acknowledgement of ancestral lands. 


“I respect the fact that I go to work each day within the home of Native Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan people who have been thriving off of this land and living off of this land for centuries,” Blihovde said.


He said that the refuge is for everyone to benefit from and protect. That includes its king salmon.

Johnathan Samuelson of Georgetown is Vice-Chair of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The commission represents the Kuskokwim’s 33 tribes and consults with federal managers on king salmon restrictions. He supports federal management of the king harvest.


“We all know that the run is down. The numbers are down. The fish are smaller, and they’re coming back even more smaller. Couple that with our population growth on the river, and it’s clear that kings are not what they used to be,” Samuelson said.


Samuelson belives that federal and tribal co-management will offer the best shot at sustaining the kings.


“Do we like asking our families not to fish? No. But we continue to do so. Do we take more than we need? No, we’re taught from day one not to do that. But it’s clear now today that there are not enough kings to meet our needs anymore,” Samuelson said.


The federal closure does not have an end date. Blihovde said that’s so managers can be adaptive to the king salmon run, and lift it either when the run proves strong enough or when the kings have passed.


“I think that we all could agree that we hope that the run size is strong and that this could be a short closure,” Blihovde said.


Ben Mulligan is Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said that the state opposes federal management of Kuskokwim kings and that the state can conserve the species. He also opposes federal restrictions on the harvest of all salmon species, including chum, reds, and silvers.  


Mary Peltola, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said that all gillnet harvest is restricted during the closure because the salmon species run together, and a gillnet cannot select between them.


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