Fishing On The Kuskokwim This Summer

May 10, 2019

Fresh fish caught on the Kuskokwim in June 2018.
Credit Katie Basile

This year, like last year, there will be severe restrictions on the number of king salmon harvested out of the Kuskokwim River. Aaron Tiernan manages the Kuskokwim fisheries for the state. He says that biologists are predicting that 132,000 kings will swim up the river this summer, about the same number as last year. 

“There’s still going to be restrictions. Doesn’t matter who the lead agency is, there’s still going to be some sort of restrictions on subsistence fishery. We still need to achieve escapement goals and we still need to think about the future,” said Tiernan.

Federal management of the fishery is slated to begin about a week earlier than in prior years. The Federal Subsistence Board decided to set a firm start and end date for federal management of the section of the Kuskokwim River that flows through the Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge. 

The Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission worked hard to get this change. Mary Peltola, executive director of the commission, says that federal management beginning June 1 and ending on June 30 should help improve fishing opportunities for local residents in Bethel by allowing unrestricted fishing when the state takes over on July 1.

“For people who do believe in letting kings pass and spawn,” she said, “they will have more of chance earlier to harvest reds and chums to really get the hundred fish or so they want to put away.”

Ray Born, the deputy refuge manager, says that most of the regulations will be similar to those in place last year, with a few exceptions. Kwethluk fishermen can plan on fishing Kuskokuak Slough at the mouth of the Kwethluk River, something that they had done traditionally but were not allowed to do recently.

“Historically we’ve had that closed, and listening to people from Kwethluk, they say 'that’s our traditional fishing area and we’d like to have that open,'" said Born. "Kwethluk River has met escapement the last couple of years, so we’re going to open it up.”

There has always been pressure to balance the desire for an early fish with allowing more kings to swim upriver. The state imposed a preseason closure while opening the lower Kuskokwim for 12-hour openings on weekends to let residents get that taste of fish. 

“Those opportunities aren’t for targeting salmon,” said Tiernan. “They’re for targeting whitefish, pike, lush, sheefish, any sort of the resident species.”

There is pressure to increase the allowable mesh size in nets to 6 inches, but Tiernan says that state regulations require using a 4-inch or less mesh net to avoid intercepting kings. However, the refuge manager has the leeway to authorize use of a 6-inch mesh when the fishery goes under federal management on June 1. The date for when the state's preseason closure will take place will be determined next week.

The question on everyone’s mind is "When will the salmon arrive in the Kuskokwim?" With a warm early spring, some say they will be early, but Ray Born says that this is an area where those who live on the Kuskokwim have a different point of view from those who study it.

“The science tells us there’s no correlation," said Born, "but James Nicori from Kwethluk yesterday in a call said, 'We think it’s going to be an early run,' and he was right the last four years in a row.”

James Nicori is one of four in-season managers for the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Peltola pointed out that Nicori was also right last June when the slow returns worried biologists about the strength of the Kuskokwim’s king run. Nicori predicted that there were more on the way because of the way the fish were behaving where he fished.

“He predicted we were not yet halfway through. Because of that prediction and the work of the in-season managers, there were two more fishing opportunities provided in June. And the Department of Fish and Game, their final number for escapement was 109,000. Their estimate for harvest was 22,000, so we came very, very close,” said Peltola.

The Kuskokwim Salmon Working Group is meeting next Friday to hammer out some of the remaining management issues for this summer’s salmon fisheries. Then the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission will weigh in.