The entire Kuskokwim River mainstem is open to gillnets until further notice. The change went into effect on July 7 at 12:01 a.m. Gillnets must be 6-inch mesh or less, 45 meshes in depth, and up to 150 feet in length above the Johnson River. Gillnets can be 300 feet in length below the Johnson River.
The prior evening, on July 6, state managers originally proposed a slower opening schedule at the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting. They decided to fully open the river immediately after hearing from about two dozen Kuskokwim residents who called in to the meeting demanding to fish, and after the working group members voted unanimously to support opening the entire mainstem to gillnets.
Many callers reported only partially filled fish racks. Others are empty. Anna May Moses in Akiachak says that her family is usually done fishing before the end of June. Now, into July, she says that she hasn’t hung a single fish or put any in the freezer.
“As we were told, we’re conserving fish for our grandkids, but where are ours?” Moses asked.
When another caller offered Moses fish, she refused, insisting that her family have the opportunity to fish for themselves.
“No, I don’t want another person’s. I want my own, our own,” Moses said.
Federal managers, in consultation with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, allowed only four 12-hour fishing openings in the lower river in June. Each was during a weekday. If someone had boat motor trouble or could not take off work, they missed the opening. Those that went out experienced "combat fishing." Boats were so close at times that they bumped together. State managers reassumed management of the lower river in July and have kept the river closed, until now, in the name of conservation.
The king salmon are running low and late, and have mostly passed through the lower river. It’s possible that they won’t meet the state’s escapement goals. Meanwhile, chum and sockeye are also running late. Both are tracking with last year’s run and are beginning to pick up in the lower river, as seen by the state’s assessment tools and by fishermen like Earl Samuelson in Napaskiak.
“I’ve been seeing all week now on the incoming tide, fish jumping up and down the river,” Samuelson said.
As nets along the lower river lie dry, frustration has mounted as subsistence users see their upper river and coastal neighbors pulling in salmon. The river above Kalskag has been open full-time to gillnets for weeks. At the end of June, a commercial salmon fishery opened in Kuskokwim Bay. Caught in the middle and unable to fish, lower river fishermen called for consistent management along the Kuskokwim and an end to the restrictions.
“Enough of this foolishness and unfairness. It’s like we’re being discriminated against in this manner,” said Father Martin Nicolai from Kwethluk.
Amplifying anxiety is the COVID-19 pandemic. Families find themselves far behind their salmon harvest goals and, like the rest of the nation, are watching grocery meat prices soar. Mark Springer, executive director of the Bethel Orutsararmiut Native Council, says that fear of food insecurity is “generating tremendous unease.”
“We don’t know what winter is going to be like," Springer said. "We don’t know what next summer is going to be like. People need to know that their families are not going to be dependent on what makes it in on the plane to the Native store.”
Now, the entire Kuskokwim mainstem is open. Families hope that they can catch and store enough salmon before the July rains and flies turn their slabs and strips to rot.
Salmon-spawning tributaries and the Aniak Box remain closed to gillnets.