The mood was happy, even relieved, as the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group met this week. The group of river users advise the state on managing the fishery. Last week, subsistence fishermen reported empty or partially-filled fish racks. The next day, the state opened the main stem of the river to gillnets full-time. A week later, on July 13, some fishermen reported nearly full racks for the season.
“On Wednesday of last week, I was able to catch about 30 reds, and eight or nine kings, and three of those broad whitefish in two drifts," said Mary Peltola, a Working Group member in Bethel. "So a lot of the anxiety that we’ve been having is gone, and the weather has been great, so lots of happiness for summertime blessings.”
Working Group member Mike Williams Sr. shared a happy sight from Akiak: “We had a lot of people that had no fish on the rack; it turned bright red.”
Sockeye salmon are currently the most abundant salmon species in the Kuskokwim River.
In Sleetmute, Working Group member Barbra Carlson said that everyone in the village who wants fish is soaking a net. She said that sockeye salmon arrived in the area in large numbers this past week, and smokehouses are filling with red strips.
“I know of one person who put a setnet in—it was just a 60-footer—for about a 10-hour period and came out with about 100 reds," Carlson said. "And they were way more than they wanted, so those were distributed throughout the village and made lots and lots of people happy.”
Carlson says that kings are still passing Sleetmute. State managers say that the kings are likely to meet the lower bound of the Kuskokwim River drainage-wide escapement goal of 65,000 fish. An estimated 90% of the king run has passed Bethel, and kings have started passing through weirs in the upper tributaries.
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. The state kept the Kuskokwim mainstem closed to gillnets through the first week of July before opening the mainstem full-time to gillnets on July 7.
The Orutsararmiut Native Council surveyed fish camps near Bethel. Out of 20 camps, most said that they have not met their king and sockeye harvest goals because of the lack of fishing opportunities. Half of the camps said that they have not met their chum harvest goals because of the weak chum run. Concerns during the meeting centered on that weak run.
“At this stage of the run, we can’t be assured of meeting escapement. We just have to watch and wait,” said Sean Larson, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Total chum escapement will largely depend on whether the run is late, which won't be known until the end of the season. If it’s a normal run, then more than half the chum could have already passed the lower river, jeopardizing escapement. If it’s a late run, then less than half could have passed, which would make meeting escapement goals more likely. If the chum run is similar to last year’s, there could be hope.
“It was right around this time last year that chum really started pushing into the river in some big numbers," Larson said. "So our biggest groups of fish came in around this time last year.”
Williams Sr. said that he’s not worried about people taking large chum harvests at this time. He said that July rains, which can spoil fish, are likely on the horizon, and many families are turning their subsistence energies to harvesting berries.
Salmonberries have ripened, and ripe blueberries should not be far behind.