The number of king salmon swimming by Bethel seems to have dropped since Saturday’s subsistence fishing opener, and managers are postponing another opener in federal waters until the numbers rise. They also want to wait until more chum and sockeye salmon fill the river.
Every day last week, the number of king salmon passing Bethel climbed higher and higher. Then on Saturday, the lower river opened to gillnets and the number of kings swimming by Bethel dropped by more than half. Judging by the state test fishery, they have not increased since. What this decline means for the Kuskokwim river king salmon run is unclear. Ken Stahlnecker manages the federal waters of the lower Kuskokwim River for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has two main theories.
“It could just be that they dropped off because we had a fishery [opener] on the 16th," Stahlnecker said, "and fish that might have otherwise have been caught in the test fishery were caught downriver of the test fishery.”
Or the low number of kings could mean something more ominous.
“It could be an early indication that the run may not be what we were hoping it was going to be,” Stahlnecker stated.
“We” refers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Together, they manage the Kuskokwim subsistence fishery in federal waters. What they were hoping for was an escapement of 110,000 king salmon, and they were allotting 16,000 kings for subsistence harvest.
According to surveys, around 12,000 king salmon have already been harvested from the lower Kuskokwim so far this season. Until the state test fishery shows more kings passing Bethel, managers do not want any more of them taken out of federal waters. Managers also want to wait for more chum and sockeye salmon to fill the river. As of Monday, the ratio of chum and red salmon to kings, or chinooks, was two to one.
“For every two chum or sockeye or combination thereof, you’re seeing one chinook,” Stahlnecker explained.
Stahlnecker is waiting for that ratio to rise to four chum or sockeye to every one king before opening another harvest.
“Or nearing there," he said. "We’re going to feel a little better about opening another fishery and not being concerned that we end up having too many chinook caught.”
Kuskokwim fishery managers are meeting again on Friday to consider scheduling another gillnet opening. Stahlnecker says that if an opening is scheduled it will not occur on Saturday so that subsistence users can have sufficient time to prepare for the opening.