The king salmon run on the Kuskokwim River is coming in low. Meanwhile, chums and reds are late. Fishing with gillnets is being shut down in the lower river through at least the end of the month.
Federal managers, with the support of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, announced on June 26 that there will be no gillnet opening on the lower Kuskokwim River through the end of June.
On July 1, the state takes over management of the lower river, and the decision of when to allow the next opening will fall to Nick Smith with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Smith says that his decision will depend on when reds and chums begin outnumbering kings in the lower river. Until that happens, fishing will stay closed. The reason, Smith says, is that there are currently no more kings left to harvest in the lower river. Far fewer kings have arrived than were forecast for this season, and the kings that remain need a chance to spawn.
Based on current data, an estimated 111,000 king salmon are expected to swim up the Kuskokwim River this summer. Around 30,000 of those have already been harvested. That leaves only 81,000 kings left to spawn.
That number is just above the range of spawning escapements (65,000-120,000) that the state says is needed to have sustainable king harvests in the future. While the king run is low, both the chum and red runs are late, even later than last year’s run, which was the latest on record for chum.
While the lower river remains closed to gillnets, the non-spawning tributaries remain open to set and drift nets. Kuskokwim residents can still harvest kings in the lower river with rod and reel, dip nets, beach seines, and fish wheels. Also, the Kuskokwim River from the Kalskag Bluffs to the headwaters remains open full-time to gillnets. This stretch of the river has fewer people fishing, and a smaller harvest than the lower river.
At a Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting on June 26, the all-volunteer group grappled with how to advise state managers on regulating the fishery. Without a quorum, the group offered individual suggestions.
Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak advocated for closing the entire Kuskokwim mainstem to gillnets to conserve the kings until more reds and chum appear.
“The whole river has to bear the brunt of the conservation effort so we’re all in it together,” said Williams Sr. at a Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting on June 26.
Other members of the working group, like Alyssa Rogers of Bethel, supported keeping the upper river open, particularly for villages at the headwaters.
“The lower river has probably had their fair share of kings and the upper river really hasn’t,” she said.
The group will convene again on June 29 at 6 p.m.