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Coho run comes under federal protection for the first time on the Kuskokwim River


Amid mounting concerns over potentially low coho salmon numbers on the Kuskokwim River, federal management will extend through the end of the salmon fishing season for the first time. This move is intended to limit subsistence opportunities for local people on the river.

This is the result of a temporary special action put in place before the season had begun. It extended federal management until Aug. 31, when the vast majority of the coho run is expected to be wrapped up.

In 2022, the run was the worst seen in 23 years. For the first time ever, the river and nearly all of its tributaries were completely closed to coho fishing by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game under state management.

“We did consider federal protection, but the state was doing essentially everything we would have done,” Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde said. “Nobody expected last year to see coho numbers come in so poorly.”

As in 2022, set net opportunities aimed at targeting the abundant sockeye that swim close to the river’s banks have been offered this year to protect historically low chinook and chum runs. With the coho crash, management has become even more complex.

“My first season, we were just managing for chinook. The next season, it's 2021, we're managing chinook and chum; 2022, chinook and chum. Now we're managing for three species. It's not a good trend,” Blihovde said.

While the outlook for coho is grim, Blihovde said that there is still time for subsistence users to take advantage of what remains of the massive sockeye run.

“We have almost 800,000 [sockeye] counted at the sonar that has gone through Bethel here. And they're still coming in at roughly between 10[,000] to 20,000 per day. So we've got fishing opportunities that are announced.”

For days when gillnet fishing is closed, dipnets have been increasingly used for targeting sockeye on the Kuskokwim River.

“The great thing about dipnets is you virtually catch nothing but sockeye,” Blihovde said. “Whether you're federally qualified or not, everybody can do that. And people are catching 20 to 30 a day, which is just amazing.”

Orutsararmuit Native Council, the tribal organization for Bethel, is still offering dipnet rentals and encourages people to call well ahead of time to reserve them.

The remaining set net opportunities on the Kuskokwim River are:

  • Twelve-hour set net opener on Friday, July 21 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Six-hour set net opener on Monday, July 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Six-hour set net opener on Wednesday, July 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Set nets are restricted to 6-inch or less mesh and may not exceed 75 feet in length and 45 meshes in depth. Nets may not be operated more than 100 feet from the ordinary high-water mark, must be attached to the bank, and must be substantially fished perpendicular to shore.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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