Many Kuskokwim fishing families are momentarily setting aside their fishing nets to pick berries
Salmon fishing is tapering off along the lower Kuskokwim River as residents have begun turning their subsistence energy to berry picking. But with the arrival of silver salmon, some fishermen plan to return their nets to the water.
Surveyors saw a steep decline in the number of gillnets in the lower Kuskokwim River during the latest opening over the weekend. Law enforcement counted 50 set nets during the July 10 opening, according to Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde. That’s nearly a 40% decline from the driftnet opening the day prior.
“So that is clearly an indication that the interest in fishing has gone down, and there's less pressure to fish over that last opportunity,” Blihovde said during this week’s Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting on July 13. It’s a weekly gathering of river residents, biologists, and fishery managers to discuss Kuskokwim salmon runs.
Blihovde said that this drop in fishing decreases the federal concern over gillnets harvesting chum salmon, which are at a near record low. He’s anticipating soon lifting federal conservation measures on the river. These regulations restrict gillnets and limit salmon fishing to local subsistence users.
Last year, Blihovde lifted these regulations when state biologists estimated that 90% of the chum run had passed Bethel. As of this week, on July 11, the state estimated that about 70% of chum have passed Bethel, but the true amount could be less. Chum have arrived late in recent years, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) fishery biologist Sean Larson.
The Kuskokwim chum run is the second-lowest on record. Only the 2021 run fell below it. Already, over 40% more chum have returned to the Kuskokwim this season than last year, according to ADF&G sonar estimates. It’s a hopeful increase, but still less than a quarter of an average run compared to the past 14 years of the state's Bethel Test Fishery data.
It's too early to tell if chum will meet escapement goals set by fishery managers, but chinook salmon are on track to meet escapement goals in most tributaries. In some tributaries, like the George River and Kwethluk River, weirs are exceeding the five-year average chinook escapement. Others, like the Kogrukluk and Salmon River Pitka Fork, are falling short. As of July 12, the Pitka Fork weir had counted only 67 chinook, compared to a historical average of 1,450 chinook counted by that date.
The cumulation of reduced run sizes across multiple salmon species across multiple years concerns Blihovde.
“So what I’m concerned for, not only are the subsistence users, which is completely valid, but the species out there. Grizzly bears, black bears, just virtually every aquatic species that’s affected by the lack of these nutrients that are [not] coming back. It’s getting to a point where I think it’s a potential disaster upriver in some of these tributaries where those nutrients are no longer coming back,” Blihovde said.
That’s not the case for sockeye, or red, salmon, which spawn in lakes. They’re running strong compared to historical runs, and currently make up most of the salmon in the river. Fisherman Allen Simeon said that sockeye swamped his set net in Aniak during a six-hour stretch.
“I got six chum, 26 kings, and 172 reds,” Simeon said.
He shared that catch with his community.
The next Lower Kuskokwim River gillnet opening is meant to target these abundant sockeye. Set nets will be allowed below the Kalskag Bluffs on Saturday, July 16 from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
However, many fishermen attending the Kuskokwim salmon meeting said that they were largely done fishing for sockeye. Now, it’s time to pick berries.
Avery Hoffman surveys fish harvest for the Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel. During the latest opener, people instead gave him their berry reports. They weren’t out fishing.
“I would have more of an update on berry picking than fishing,” he said, laughing.
LaMont Albertson led this week’s salmon meeting with an invocation, thanking Jesus for the recent rain that watered the berries along the lower river.
“We pray that you will be with our berry pickers, that they will be safe as they go across the tundra and spread across the state,” Albertson prayed.
At the headwaters, Dan Esai in Nicolai is waiting for rain. He said that the Interior’s hot, dry summer means that the salmonberries there are also dry and small. He also said that the hot temperatures mean they can’t dry their salmon properly. The meat is too soft for strips once it leaves the warm water.
“We’re used to hardship for many years, so it’s nothing new to us,” Esai said.
Along with picking berries, several fishermen said that they plan to put their nets back in for silver salmon, which have already begun entering the river.