The controversial Kuskokwim River dipnet fishery will open for the first time ever Sunday amid strict restrictions on the king salmon harvest.
Subsistence fishermen in the Western Alaska region will be able to use the long nets that scoop fish out of the water for 12 hours a day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., in an effort to catch sockeye and chum heading from the Bering Sea to their spawning grounds upriver.
The first opening will go from the mouth of the river in Kuskokwim Bay to the mouth of the Tuluksak River, upriver from Bethel. On Tuesday, the fishery will open further upriver from the Tuluksak to Aniak.
Aaron Poetter, Bethel area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, gave the go-ahead to open the fishery Friday. He said the Bethel test fishery showed a catch of 29 king salmon and 39 combined sockeye and king salmon.
Poetter said that in an effort to reduce accidental king catch, he was waiting until the king and other salmon met a one-to-one ratio before opening the fishery. With the ratio met and unlikely to regress, he gave the go-ahead to open the fishery, which will stay open through the end of the sockeye and chum run.
The Board of Fish approved the dipnet gear type this year as a method of harvesting fish that could potentially spare king salmon, whose numbers have declined significantly in recent years. All kings caught by dipnet must be returned immediately to the water unharmed.
King conservation has been at the forefront of river management this season. Escapement goals for king salmon have not been met since 2010, and only 94,680 salmon returned to the river in 2013, the lowest return on record.
The preseason forecast for king salmon on the river looked equally dreary, with a return of 94,000 fish anticipated. Before the decline, the Chinook run on the Kuskokwim averaged about 260,000 fish a year.
With that, managers have taken drastic measures. The chinook fishery is being managed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service for the first time, while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages other salmon runs on the river. Beyond a social and cultural fishery of 1,000 king salmon, essentially none of the fish, the lifeblood for people living in the region, may be harvested.
Using dipnets is a historic change for the region, where residents have long used gillnets as a primary method of harvesting fish. With that change comes concern over how the fishery will be used.
Poetter said there has been hesitation about using the gear type. Unlike Southcentral Alaska, where dipnetting is common and popular, few in Bethel can recall a time when fishermen used dipnets on the Kuskokwim.
While Southcentral residents commonly dipnet from the banks of the Kenai and Chitina rivers, dipnetting on the Kuskokwim will be done from boats. Poetter said investing in fuel and the new gear has been a barrier for some.
Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said the organization had hoped to have access to 2012 king salmon disaster relief funds in time to help people buy dipnets. So far, those funds won't be available until after the fishing season ends, he said.
Poetter said the department has spent the season working with residents to teach them about dipnets, noting that a commercial dipnet fishery on the Yukon River was successful in 2013. On that river, which has seen its own harsh restrictions in an effort to conserve king salmon, commercial fishermen caught just under 200,000 summer chum salmon, according to Emmonak area biologist Eric Newland. He said about 30 to 80 commercial fishermen took advantage of the dipnet fishery at various times, out of about 130 commercial gillnet fishermen.
"People on the lower Yukon embraced it rather quickly," he said. "It hasn't been a full transition. Not all of them want to be a dipnetter for the rest of their life."
Poetter hopes to see residents on the Kuskokwim River embrace it as well.
"It looks real positive (about the opening)," Poetter said. "We hope people get out there and get some fish on the racks."
Reach Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com.
By SUZANNA CALDWELL