Kuskokwim River opens to gillnetting amid king salmon restrictions

Suzanna Caldwell

After weeks of anxiety, fishermen on the Kuskokwim River can finally breathe a sigh of relief, as managers announced a short fishing opening on the river Friday night.

Starting 4 p.m. Friday, 6-inch mesh gillnets limited to 50 fathoms will be permitted from the mouth of the Johnson River downstream to the southern tip of Eek Island until 8 p.m. The area from below Eek Island to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge border will also open at the same time but will remain open through the duration of the season, according to a release from refuge manager Brian McCaffery.

McCaffery said catches at the Bethel test fishery, located 2 miles upstream from the Kuskokwim River community of 6,000, indicate that sockeye and chum salmon are at a 4-to-1 ratio to king salmon. McCaffery said strong test fishery numbers indicate that downstream numbers are even better. With the king salmon run waning and the sockeye and chum picking up, McCaffery ordered the fishery opened to the traditional style of 6-inch mesh nets.

King runs have been weak 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. The fishery used to average about 260,000 kings returning to the river.

Since the beginning of the season, harsh restrictions have been in place for fishermen in an effort to conserve kings. Fishermen have been able to fish using smaller and shorter 4-inch gillnets designed to primarily target whitefish, though many have said that those opportunities have not been broad enough and that many have not even begun storing fish for the rest of the year. Some incidental kings have been caught using that method, McCaffery said. It is legal to keep those fish, despite the restrictions.

The gear restrictions and closures led to some anxiety from villagers in the region who worried the restrictions meant they wouldn't be able to catch enough food to get them through the rest of the year. King and other species of salmon are a primary food source for the region. A dipnet fishery was opened by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sunday, though it appeared few people participated in the fishery, which was set to target sockeye and chums.

McCaffery said that fishing along the rest of the river would open in the next few days, probably in three-to-five-day increments, allowing time for the sockeye and chum salmon to move up river.

Timothy Andrew, director of natural resources for the Association of Village Council Presidents, said the opening reminded him of 2012, when strict restrictions were in place as well. He said after managers opened this fishery, there was wide relief among villagers in the region.

Despite the short duration of the four-hour fishery, Andrews said it's good to give people a chance to finally get fish on their drying racks.

"I think (the opening) is going to be a blessing," he said from Bethel Thursday.

Now that the bulk of the king salmon run has passed, whether or not enough fish made it to their upstream spawning grounds is still to be determined according to McCaffery. That escapement information will be calculated using weir and subsistence data collected during the late summer and fall.

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com.