If you’re confused about Kuskokwim fishing regulations this summer, you’re not alone. Different regulations are coming from different government agencies for the same river. One of the big reasons for that divide is how many king salmon the agencies want to reach their spawning grounds.
On the federal side, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing regulations for the Lower Kuskokwim River. Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is issuing regulations for the Upper Kuskokwim River.
“It’s been confusing, we understand that," said Aaron Tiernan, ADF&G Kuskokwim Area Manager, on KYUK's Fish Talk radio show.
“We will work to improve that for next year,” Ray Born, USFWS Yukon Delta National Refuge Manager, told listeners.
Tiernan and Born are the managers sending out the fishing notices. They say that they can’t send out joint notices because of differences between state and federal standards.
One of those differences are the agencies’ goals for the number of king salmon they want to reach their spawning grounds, what’s known as escapement. The state has a wide range for that goal: 65,000 to 120,000 king salmon. The feds have a specific number in the upper end of that range: 110,000 kings. That target comes at the request of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. This is the third summer the commission has set this target. Reaching it requires high conservation and restricted fishing.
Tiernan explains that the state has a wide escapement range, rather than a specific number, because kings return within a range.
“Fish populations don’t come back with a set number every single year. It fluctuates," he explained. "And it always has and it always will be.”
The state’s escapement range is designed to allow future returns that support both a sustainable fish population and a subsistence fishery. The state has met its escapement range for king salmon since 2014, and says that there is no conservation concern for this species.
“The stock is not in peril of going extinct, or vanishing, or just going away," Tiernan explained. "What we’re dealing with is more of a problem with returning yields. What I mean by that is harvest opportunity. So we’re having to place restrictions on the fishery just to ensure that enough fish are getting on the spawning grounds.”
Meanwhile, the feds have taken control of the king salmon fishery in the lower river because of a conservation concern presented by the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission under federal subsistence law. The federal government has more tools to manage for local subsistence than the state does because of court rulings. The commission’s goal is to increase the kings' future population by limiting fishing and allowing more kings to spawn. The feds have adopted this goal and taken over the king salmon management in the lower river during the month of June.
The state warns that shooting for the upper end of the escapement range over too long a time could harm the fishery by having too many salmon spawning in the same places year after year. The commission counters that, after the low runs earlier this decade, kings need high escapement to build a stronger population.