New state data reveals that the number of king salmon returning to the Kuskokwim River has been inflated for decades. Now, the state is recommending that the body governing the Bering Sea pollock fishery adopt this new information. If it does, restrictions on the fleet’s bycatch of king salmon could tighten, and a long-voiced demand from Kuskokwim residents could be met.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Kodiak, Alaska this week. It’s scheduled to make a decision by Monday on how many king salmon can be caught incidentally by commercial fishing boats targeting pollock in the Bering Sea. The Council oversees those bycatch regulations and can tighten them when king salmon returns to Western Alaska rivers fall below a certain threshold of less than 250,000 king salmon returning to the Kuskokwim River, Upper Yukon River, and Unalakleet River combined.
According to new data from the Alaska Fish and Game Department, returns have been below this threshold since at least 2010. Meanwhile, the Bering Sea pollock fleet has hauled in tens of thousands of king salmon each year, caught incidentally. Less than three percent of those kings are estimated to have been bound for Western Alaska rivers.
With fewer kings swimming up the Kuskokwim, fishermen have been told by state, federal, and tribal managers to fish less along the river, and fisherman have pointed downstream and said the problem is further away—in the Bering Sea.
“To me, I think more should be done out in the ocean," said Darren Deacon, Tribal Chief of the Native Village of Kalskag, during a recent teleconference hosted by the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission. “If we’re going to suffer in these rivers, every person, every village, every tribe is suffering, the trawling fleets should feel the same pain.”
This is the fifth summer, the Kuskokwim River has come under increasingly tighter fishing restrictions to conserve the King stocks. Fishermen have been required to use smaller gillnets with smaller mesh. Gillnet openings have been limited to just a few within the month of June, the height of the king season, over the last few seasons. And fishermen have lost nets and even appeared in court for violating restrictions
For years, Kuskokwim fishermen have been demanding lower king salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea.
Now, with the bycatch numbers under review, and new data on hand, Kuskokwim residents’ long-voiced demand might come true.