Is the king salmon run on the Kuskokwim River late or low? That’s the question subsistence users and managers are asking as the kings arrive in numbers smaller than expected. State biologists say that this coming week could provide an answer.
State biologists predicted that this year's run would look like last year's. Instead, the king salmon are tracking slightly below the 2018 run. That run was late, but it wasn’t low. It marked the highest king run since 2009, when an estimated 189,370 kings arrived. The 2018 run is what state managers consider average for the Kuskokwim at an estimated 136,000 kings.
Traditional knowledge points to a late run this year as well. James Nicori is one of the in-season managers for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He says that the spring bird migration forecasts how the salmon will arrive.
“Looking at the birds and observing them, they were late. So those salmon will come in, but the high numbers will be at a later date,” Nicori said.
As of June 13, the state-run Bethel sonar had counted 9,000 kings, about the same number as this time of year in 2018. Last year, around this time, the sonar had counted more than two-and-a-half times that number, nearly 24,000 kings. Whether the run is low or just late won’t be known until further in the season. The kings will show up, or they won’t. This uncertainty is worrying some fishermen.
During the June 15 opening, subsistence fisherman Fritz Charles drifted near the Galic River, catching about 13 kings and one red. That’s a higher catch than many others reported during the weekly Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting. Charles is concerned that the initial low numbers could jeopardize how many kings are able to spawn, especially with so many fishermen targeting the run.
“It was ridiculous right there in front of Oscarville and Napaskiak. Boats hitting each other, and hollering at each other and what not. It’s just getting worse and worse every year,” he said.
State biologists, like Sean Larson with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, say that they’re not worried about the king numbers.
“They’re not as huge of numbers as we saw last year, but there’s still a lot more run to see," Larson said. "It very well could be that this ends up being a late run. We just need a little more time and a little more data before we make that determination.”
Larson says that he’s keeping a close eye on the numbers this coming week, which could provide a clearer picture for how the run will look this season. He reports that the nearby Yukon and Nushagak Rivers are also seeing initial signs of what could be late king runs as well.
Meanwhile, the chum and red salmon on the Kuskokwim are just starting to show up.