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State fishery managers will continue to keep the Kuskokwim River closed to coho salmon fishing

Coho salmon
Coho salmon

State fishery managers will continue to keep the Kuskokwim River closed to coho salmon fishing. With the run the lowest it’s been in decades and unlikely to meet state escapement goals, managers have refused local residents’ requests to loosen restrictions.

On Aug. 17, for the first time ever, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) closed the entire Kuskokwim River and nearly all tributaries to coho salmon fishing. The regulations banned most fishing gear, including gillnets, from these waters.

At the time, lower river communities had been able to fish for coho on an open river for weeks, and the salmon had just started reaching the upper waters. River residents say that the closure disproportionally limits the ability of upper river communities to access coho, which has become a more critical protein source as other salmon runs have declined reaching the headwaters.

Hours after the closure took effect, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a group of local subsistence users who advise the state on salmon management, asked ADF&G to open the upper Kuskokwim river upstream of Aniak full-time to coho salmon fishing. They also asked the state to open the lower river to 4-inch mesh set gillnets three days per week for whitefish harvest.

But in a letter issued on Aug. 19, two days after the closure took effect, ADF&G Kuskokwim Fishery Manager Nick Smith said that he could not fulfill those requests.

“While ADF&G understands and appreciates the motivation behind these motions to provide for ongoing subsistence coho salmon harvest, it cannot accept and act upon them at this time,” Smith wrote. “Following through with any of these motions would be contrary to state statue, regulation, and fundamental principles of sustainable salmon fisheries management.”

Smith cited state data from the state-run Bethel Test Fishery indicating that the river is experiencing its lowest coho run in 23 years. Meanwhile, ADF&G is reporting the lowest ever recorded escapement at the Kwethluk River and escapements below their long-term averages at the Korukluk and George River weirs.

“While current restrictions are creating severe hardships and impacting subsistence users throughout the Kuskokwim River Drainage, they are necessary to ensure the sustainability of Kuskokwim River salmon so there are salmon available for subsistence harvest in the future,” Smith wrote. “The impacts of this most recent management action are especially hard felt in middle and headwaters communities of the Kuskokwim River.”

Smith said that if coho numbers increase enough to meet escapement goals, then fishing restrictions will loosen.

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