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Kuskokwim sockeye counts are up compared to recent years

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

The Chinook salmon run is nearing completion in the lower Kuskokwim River, but both the Chinook and chum runs remain well under their historical average size. Meanwhile, reds are running in greater numbers than usual.

On the lower Kuskokwim River, more than 75% of the Chinook run is complete based on historical run trends. This year’s run size has almost doubled compared to last year, but overall it’s still low. That’s based on data from the sonar. As of June 26, 2021, the sonar had counted 42,500 Chinook. As of the same date in 2022, it’s counted just under 80,000 Chinook. With fishing openings and a slightly higher run size than in recent years, river residents have been able to put some Chinook up in their fish camps this year.

“I'm very happy to see more kings than last year,” said Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak.

Williams Sr. spoke at the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working group meeting on June 29. During these weekly meetings, subsistence users, managers, and scientists discuss run sizes and share traditional and scientific knowledge about salmon.

Williams Sr. said that most people on the lower river have gotten the salmon they need, but he’s still disappointed that the Chinook run is lower than average.

Chums are faring worse than Chinook this year. They are also running in far lower than average numbers, according to counts from subsistence users and the state’s sonar and test fishery project near Bethel. Data from the test fishery shows that this is the third lowest chum run since 2008. The sonar has counted 3,350 fish. Meeting attendees voiced concern over the chum runs.

“I'm hoping that we can call attention to the shortage of chums that we have here on the Kuskokwim River,” said Williams Sr.

Runs are even lower on the Yukon River, where fishing has remained closed for a second year. Attendee LaMont Albertson said that the federal government should be looking into why the chum counts are so low. But reds are running in high numbers this year, and Albertson said that subsistence users should be able to get some relief filling their fish racks.

“We hope that reds will take the place of the chums,” said Albertson.

Reds have been running abundantly. So far, this year’s numbers make it the third largest red run in the past decade. Plus, state biologists say that the run is trending upward at a faster rate than in previous years.

According to state data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, reds usually make up about a quarter to a third of the overall number of salmon swimming up the river. This year, Kuskokwim Working Group Chairman Fritz Charles said that he thinks that ratio has increased.

“On [June 25], I went down river to go fish. And at that time, it was half and half ratio with kings and reds,” said Charles.

State biologists agree with Charles. Their data show that reds have made up about half the Kuskokwim salmon counts so far, and the run is more than halfway complete. As of June 27, the Bethel Test Fishery had caught 386 reds, which was up from the past five year average of 275 fish.

There will be another chance for federally qualified subsistence users to fish for sockeye in the lower river over this holiday weekend. The set net opener for reds runs 36 hours. It begins on July 3 at 6:00 a.m. and will last until July 4 at 6:00 p.m.

Set nets must be 6 inch or less mesh, and cannot exceed 75 feet in length and 45 meshes in depth. Users must set their nets near the bank not more than 100 feet away from the ordinary high water mark. That’s because reds tend to swim near banks, whereas chum and Chinook veer towards the middle channel.

The opening applies to the lower Kuskokwim River from the mouth upstream to the Kalskag Bluffs. The waters above these bluffs are open full-time to gillnets.

Corrected: July 5, 2022 at 10:07 AM AKDT
The start time of the 36-hour set net opener on July 3 began at 6 a.m. The original version of this article said the opener began at 6 p.m.
Olivia Ebertz is a News Reporter for KYUK. She also works as a documentary filmmaker. She enjoys learning languages, making carbs, and watching movies.
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