Saving Kuskokwim king salmon run takes a tough plan

Brian Mccaffery

King salmon on the Kuskokwim River are in trouble. Since last fall, there has been a growing local recognition that the problem is serious and that serious actions need to be taken. The run last year was the smallest on record, as was escapement -- more than 15,000 fewer than the lower range of the escapement goal.

Very few individual tributaries met their escapement goals, and all of the Kuskokwim drainage weir projects reported the lowest passage on record. This year's king salmon run is forecast to be just as bad. We expect there to be very little, if any, harvestable surplus.

In mid-April, the Federal Subsistence board responded to a proposal submitted by the village of Napaskiak to limit the king salmon fishery to federally qualified subsistence users. The Board proposal passed, with two major consequences.

• If a harvestable surplus is identified, the subsistence use of those fish will be limited to members of just 32 communities along and adjacent to the Kuskokwim River.

• As a result of the board's action, management of the Kuskokwim River king salmon fishery within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge will be administered by the federal government.

As the acting manager of the refuge, I have been designated by the board as the in-season manager of the Kuskokwim king salmon fishery.

Since the board's decision, my salmon management team here at the refuge worked hard to produce a plan as quickly as possible so that local subsistence users would know what to expect.

Over the course of the winter, we worked regularly with Travis Elison, former Alaska Department of Fish and Game area manager, and the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group to better understand the current crisis, develop appropriate management strategies for this coming season and to get that message out along the Kuskokwim by visiting communities and consulting with the tribes. Together, we developed a broad consensus about the general approach required this season.

Although our plan is not identical to that proposed by ADFG, we hope that it incorporates the most important elements of what both the state and the working group discussed for months.

Because the conservation crisis is severe, the measures we have taken to protect the king salmon must be equally serious. The plan includes the following major elements:

• Beginning on May 20 on the lower Kuskokwim and on May 27 between Tuluksak and Aniak, gear restrictions have been implemented. Subsistence fishing is now limited to gillnets of 4-inch mesh or less and limited to 60 feet in length. Only setnets will be allowed.

• ADFG intends to open a dipnet fishery for chum and sockeye salmon at some point in June to provide subsistence users additional opportunities to harvest these species. Any king salmon caught dipnetting must be released back into the water immediately. The exact timing will be announced by ADFG once the Bethel test fishery indicates that there are large numbers of chum and sockeye in the Kuskokwim.

• If by late June the Bethel test fishery indicates the strength and timing of the king salmon run is favorable, and if the ratio of chum and sockeye to king salmon is high, we intend to initiate brief openings in the last week of June for the use of 6-inch mesh gillnets to allow for targeted harvest of chum and sockeye.

• A limited harvest of king salmon (not to exceed 1,000 fish in the Kuskokwim drainage) will be allowed for cultural and social purposes. This harvest will be allocated via permits to the 32 communities qualifying for king salmon harvest this season.

We do not take such serious restrictions lightly. We fully realize that these necessary conservation measures will impact subsistence activities up and down the river. In light of this, we are indeed fortunate that so many U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees involved in Kuskokwim salmon management are Alaska Natives from this region. Gene Peltola Jr., our former refuge manager and now the head of the service's Office of Subsistence Management, was born and raised in Bethel. All three Yukon Delta Refuge staff members who have been advising me as part of our salmon management team are also Alaska Natives born and raised in Southwest Alaska.

In addition, both the field project leader for our Tuluksak weir and the crew leader for our Kwethluk River salmon research are from Y-K Delta villages. Their insights have played a critical role in the development of the dramatic conservation actions required to save our king salmon.

Both the Alaska Board of Fish and the Federal Subsistence Board approved the use of dipnets for harvesting chum and sockeye along the Kuskokwim -- and it's generated both curiosity and concern. As noted above, ADFG will manage this dipnet fishery. The intent of authorized dipnetting is to allow subsistence fishers to begin harvesting chum and sockeye while still protecting king salmon. If any king salmon are caught in the dipnet, they can, and indeed must, be released immediately back into the river unharmed.

Although subsistence users on the Yukon have been using dipnets for a couple of years with growing success, their use for salmon on the Kuskokwim will be a new experience for most. My Yup'ik colleagues have assured me, however, that their culture has always shown great flexibility and success when incorporating new technologies into their subsistence activities, from firearms in the 19th century to snowmachines, outboards and large-mesh commercial gill nets in the 20th century. We're hoping that the use of dipnets in the 21st century might have similar potential.

We've heard repeatedly from residents spread out from the headwaters to the mouth of the Kuskokwim just how important king salmon are -- not just nutritionally, but culturally and socially as well.

Even when acknowledging the need for significant restrictions on king salmon harvest, some Kuskokwim residents have asked for a very limited harvest of king salmon to honor both the fish themselves and the cultural heritage of king salmon harvest.

One proposal suggested that a limited harvest of 20-30 kings per village would be much appreciated along the river.

We have incorporated this idea into our management plan for the season, and will allow a total harvest of up to 1,000 king salmon to be allocated among the 32 villages recognized by the Federal Subsistence Board.

We realize that such a small allocation will not fulfill subsistence needs. We are simply hoping that by honoring these requests, Kuskokwim River communities will be able to maintain a tangible connection with the king salmon this year.

These management strategies will require sacrifice and may produce hardship. In the past, other conservation actions on the Y-K Delta, such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Goose Management Plan and the moose moratoriums, have also required the people to make great sacrifices in the short term to guarantee opportunities in the future. Those efforts have paid extraordinary dividends, however, and ultimately provided significant conservation and subsistence benefits.

It is my hope that our efforts on behalf of the king salmon this season will provide similar dividends for generations to come.

Brian McCaffery works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as acting manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Brian McCaffery