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State Announces Kuskokwim Fishing Opening; Feds Say It's Illegitimate

Kuskokwim king salmon caught near Bethel, Alaska on June 12, 2018.
Katie Basile

Kuskokwim River fishermen have been cast into confusion. Federal and state agencies both manage the lower Kuskokwim River, and they are currently at odds. The state is saying that the lower river is open to driftnets on June 28; the feds are saying it’s closed. 

Federal managers say that they’re not sure how the state-issued opener will be enforced. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) declared a driftnet opening in the lower Kuskokwim River for this coming Monday, June 28, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

But before the summer fishing season began, the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge declared federal management of the lower Kuskokwim River salmon fishery. They did so under ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, to help conserve king salmon. 

The feds have not issued an opening on June 28, and federal manager Boyd Blihovde said that they do not plan to. Blihovde said that the state’s announcement for the opening is illegal and illegitimate.

“My interpretation is that folks should not be fishing under a state announcement at all. That wouldn't be right or legitimate,” Blihovde said.

ADF&G Kuskokwim manager Nick Smith did not respond to KYUK’s request for comment before this story was published to reply to Blihovde’s claims.

The state released their announcement via email on June 24 during FishTalk, a KYUK call-in show about summer fishing. Tribal and federal managers were guests on the show. Local fishermen asked how federal law enforcement officers would handle the state-announced opener on June 28. 

“I don't know the exact direction that the law enforcement officers will go,” Blihovde said. “Law enforcement has their own discretion. They don't work for the refuge directly, so they have their supervisors that they'll have to answer to.”

Blihovde said that he is working to get more information for fishermen before the opening. 

“It's just crazy,” said Kuskokwim fisherman Tim Andrew, who called into the FishTalk program, saying that the state is trying to exert its sovereignty over the federally managed waters. “The only people that are going to get hurt are the subsistence fishers, because they're the ones that are going to get cited. They're the ones that are going to be confused. And, above all, it may hurt our resources.”

The state and the federal managers not only disagree on who has jurisdiction to manage the lower Kuskokwim salmon fishery, they also disagree on the strength of the king salmon run.

ADF&G Biologist Nick Smith was the one who issued the state opener. In a meeting on June 23 with federal managers and local advisors, Smith said that the king run looks large enough for another opening. State biologists estimate that slightly more king salmon are arriving in the Kuskokwim this year than last year, but slightly less than in 2018. In both 2018 and 2020, there were four drift net openings. There have been three so far this year. 

Blihovde, the federal manager, expressed skepticism during the meeting that the state’s evaluation of where the king run stands is completely accurate.

“Maybe our run’s early. We may have seen the strongest part of the run,” Blihovde said.

Fishermen caught fewer king salmon per drift in the most recent opener than in the opener before that. That drop could support Blihovde’s theory that the midpoint of the king salmon run has already passed, and that the king run is actually smaller than the state’s estimate.

But the kings are not the only concern this season. This year’s chum run is the lowest on record since recordkeeping began nearly 40 years ago, according to the Bethel Test Fishery. Federal biologist Spencer Rearden said that he expects those numbers to stay low.

“Right now, we have concern,” Rearden said.

The state’s decision to announce an opener on June 28 goes against recommendations by the state’s own advisory group, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. On June 23, the state working group voted to oppose any openings announced by the state until the feds and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission review the king and chum salmon run on June 25.

The state’s own advisory working group has opposed state management of the Kuskokwim River all season. At the beginning of the season, the working group voted for the state to take no management action in the lower river while the feds were managing it. The group has opposed state management actions in three votes since then.

Kuskokwim River Inter-tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola said that the state’s power struggle with federal and tribal managers only hurts local fishermen. 

“I don't think any fisherman on the river cares what jurisdiction they're in. They just want to know what's legal and when they can fish. And this is just going to cause a lot of confusion, and a lot of chaos, and a lot of hard feelings,” Peltola said.

Blihovde called the state’s decision to open on June 28 reckless and disappointing. He said that he hopes that the state rescinds its announcement.

Greg Kim was a news reporter for KYUK from 2019-2022.
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