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Frustrations mount as king salmon conservation takes priority on the Kuskokwim River

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

Frustration is growing in the Kuskokwim region of western Alaska, as subsistence fishermen challenged managers for more openings on the river that has seen harsh restrictions this season in an effort to conserve king salmon.

Managers heard their concerns at the Kuskokwim River Salmon Working Group meeting in Bethel Tuesday, but reiterated that their efforts were for conservation, as the king salmon run in the region appears on track to be abysmal going into the 2014 season.

"We are not sure what the strength of the run is and we'd hate to put people through hardship and sacrifice and then make a decision that undercuts it," said Brian McCaffery, manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. He is leading up management of the king salmon fishery in the region.

Having federal managers is a first for the region, which has traditionally been overseen by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, after a village in the region asked for federal management earlier this year. Managers have been trying to deal with providing opportunities to fish as they try to conserve king salmon on the river, which have been crashing in recent years. Last year an estimated 94,000 fish returned to the river, the lowest return on record. Estimates for the 2014 season are not expected to be much better, with only 71,000 to 117,000 fish expected to return. Before the crash, the fishery averaged about 260,000 kings returning to the river each year.

McCaffery said even a small opening of just a few hours could mean a huge potential harvest of king salmon. Any opening would have to be taken cautiously.

During Tuesday's meeting, babies cried and cell phones rang as numerous residents from villages up and down the river called in, voicing their concerns and asking managers to provide an opening. Most offered personal stories of their struggles or of others in their community. Others talked about difficulties with the new gear types, including limitations on traditional 6-inch gill nets and allowing the use of dipnets. Some even threatened violence. 

But almost universally, villagers said their salmon drying racks, where they process and store the fish that they catch every summer, are empty. The rainy season is set to start soon, they say, and with the king salmon run peaking, it remains unclear if they will be allowed to harvest any of the fish.

Many decried the use of dipnets, a new gear type allowed on the river this year, as a burdensome and inefficient method of catching fish. Since first opening on the lower river Sunday, reports show only a few people have taken advantage of the dipnet fishery -- most sticking with their shorter, 4-inch gill nets. Few, if any fish, have been caught using dipnets, according to numbers provided to the working group.

McCaffery said he's hopeful that sometime in the near future -- perhaps as early as the end of the week -- there will be 6-inch gill net openings to target sockeye and chum salmon. He said they're waiting for numbers at the Bethel test fishery to have a higher ratio of four or five sockeye and chum for every one king salmon before they begin the openings. After those numbers get close, then fishing will open up in other parts of the river about three days later. McCaffery said those openings would likely be short -- only a few hours at a time to see how fishing goes.

"We are still under extreme conservation concerns," he said.

Caution is driving management of the fishery. McCaffery said that numbers in the test fishery may look high -- 343 king salmon have been counted at the test site this year, compared to 48 at the same time last year -- but those numbers come with an asterisk. He said an early run and limited king salmon fishing on the river might be inflating the numbers.

"We can say that it's early this year, but we can't say yet whether it’s a good run," McCaffery told the working group. "But (the numbers) don't mean the same thing they said in the past because harvest hasn't happened."

The working group ended up voting to support whatever decisions the managers make in the coming days. They plan to meet again later in the week.

"Anxiety is setting in pretty strong," said Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak, a member of the working group. "Hopefully the people at the helm will find a way to give relief to a lot of these families that are anxious about what's coming up."

Bev Hoffman, co-chair of the working group, understands that frustration, but said the group was trying to address everyone's concerns and keep those frustrations to a minimum, especially after threats of possible violence.

"It's up to us to calm people down," she said. "It’s a serious situation."

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