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Kuskokwim River residents are urging state fishery managers to open the river one day per week to gillnets

Coho salmon
Coho salmon

Kuskokwim River residents are urging state fishery managers to open the river one day per week to gillnets. Last week, for the first time ever, fishery managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) closed the river and nearly all tributaries to gillnets and coho salmon harvest. The month-long closure is meant to conserve the near-record low coho run. Residents are asking managers to compromise with people who need fish.

According to at least one measurement, the Kuskokwim River coho salmon run is the second-lowest ever recorded, according to the state-run Bethel Test Fishery, which has been operating for 38 years. That project and the state sonar have both closing this week. Fishery managers will no longer measure how many coho are entering the river this season, but will measure escapement at three weirs.

“Any coho harvest, right now, at this time, we see as an impact on future years, essentially," ADF&G Kuskokwim fishery biologist Ross Renick said.

Under the current regulations, gillnets are prohibited in nearly all flowing water to prevent nets from snagging coho salmon. But gillnets are allowed in non-flowing water, like ponds and oxbow lakes, to target whitefish, pike, and other non-salmon species.

These non-flowing waters are not evenly distributed or accessible along the river. Near Akiak, where Mike Williams Sr. lives, they’re sparse.

“We are used to having fresh fish, and people are hungry right now," Williams Sr. said.

Williams Sr. sits on the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a group of river residents who advise state fishery managers on salmon management.

The members unanimously passed a motion asking the state to open the upper river above Aniak to gillnets one day a week for a full 24 hours until the closure ends on Sept. 15. Coho had just started reaching these waters when the closure took effect, cutting communities off from harvesting the fish.

Barbara Carlson lives in Sleetmute along the upper river and proposed the weekly openings.

“I do recognize the numbers are low. This is not going to give us enough fish to put fish up, but it might give us a chance to make akutuq with fresh whitefish and have a couple of silvers to eat," she said.

Silvers, or coho, have become a critical protein source in the upper river as other salmon species have declined reaching the headwaters. Without whitefish, people are unable to make akutuq with the berries they’re picking.

The group also discussed reasons for managers to open the lower river to gillnets for at least a few hours each week to target whitefish.

Kwethluk resident John Andrew said that with moose season opening soon, fewer people would be fishing, which would lessen possible pressure on coho. Andrew, who is an Elder, said other Elders are calling him, asking for salmon to jar and ferment. He supported limited fishing openings.

“We’d be really happy," Andrew said. "Everybody is hurting for fresh fish right now.”

Residents asked managers why they couldn’t use 4-inch mesh gillnets on the river. The nets are considered non-salmon gear, and they’re allowed on the Yukon River, where coho fishing is also closed due to low returns.

Chuck Brazil, ADF&G Regional Management Coordinator for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said that regulations wouldn't allow for that on the Kuskokwim. Managers can either allow all gillnets or prohibit them, but not limit mesh size during salmon conservation. He said that the Alaska Board of Fisheries would consider a proposal at its next meeting to change that.

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