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State anticipates status quo for 2024 Kuskokwim River salmon runs

A gillnet is used to harvest salmon on the Kuskokwim River near Akiachak on June 23, 2023.
MaryCait Dolan
A gillnet is used to fish for salmon on the Kuskokwim River near Akiachak on June 23, 2023.

With another heavily restricted salmon fishing season just around the corner on the Kuskokwim River, state fisheries managers are not anticipating any drastic changes in terms of run strength from what was seen last year.

According to Chuck Brazil, a regional fisheries management coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who oversees the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region, the forecast for chinook (king) salmon is in line with returns over the past decade.

“We're looking at a near-recent average, which is about 120,000 to 140,000 fish,” Brazil said. “I would expect this upcoming season to look very similar to last season with limited openings, maybe one opening a week throughout the course of this chinook salmon season.”

The federal government, rather than the state, currently has the final say regarding when salmon fishing is allowed on the lower Kuskokwim River. This was confirmed by a recent U.S. District Court ruling in a case which calls into question management of the 180-mile portion of the river that flows through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2023, the chinook harvest for lower Kuskokwim River communities, the majority of which happens in June each year, was estimated at roughly 21,000 fish. That’s according to the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which has a co-stewardship agreement in place with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding management of Kuskokwim River salmon.

Chum salmon follow close behind the chinook that swim up the Kuskokwim River. This year’s run is also not expected to deviate much from 2023, when the population saw a significant rebound, but still remained far below the long-term average.

“The chum run will start coming in about a quarter of the way through the chinook salmon run,” Brazil said. “We do have some inclination that the chum run is probably going to be near average again this upcoming season, and that's our hope.”

As for sockeye, or red salmon, around 900,000 of the fish passed Bethel last year, according to the Kuskokwim River Sonar project. Brazil estimated the total harvest last year at roughly 58,000 fish, and said this year could also be strong.

“We see runs there, historically, on average between 500,000 to 900,000 sockeye salmon, and we think we're going to have about an average run this upcoming season. So, there should be a lot of opportunity to get out, get some sockeye salmon to put up on the racks.”

Brazil said the increasing use of dipnets to target sockeye salmon on the Kuskokwim River has proven to be an effective means of boosting the overall harvest, while protecting chinook and chum runs.

As for coho, or silver salmon, he said the fate of the end-of-summer Kuskokwim River run appears to be anyone’s guess.

“They can be up and down. I mean you could have a poor run, and then that poor run can produce a really good run,” Brazil said. “So they're kind of unpredictable.”

While in 2022, the Kuskokwim River Sonar recorded the lowest coho run in decades, the run in 2023 hit nearly 380,000 fish.

“This year, we feel that it's going to be a near average run, and we expect to meet our goals, and there should be some harvest of coho salmon,” Brazil said.

Brazil stressed that pre-season forecasts only serve as general guidelines, and that final decisions regarding harvest opportunities can only be made as in-season data become available.

“The best possible outcome that I can see is that we make all escapement goals for the individual species within the river and that we can provide plenty of subsistence opportunities so folks can get subsistence needs met,” Brazil said.

Members of the public interested in providing input on salmon management are encouraged to attend meetings of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. The working group’s first meeting of the year is scheduled to take place at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices in Bethel from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 28.

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