BETHEL -- High emotions over restrictions that prevented Kuskokwim River villagers from catching the king salmon that usually line drying racks in summer and fill freezers in winter eased over the last week when skiffs were allowed to drift with larger gear.
By then, most of the kings already had moved upriver. Subsistence fishermen on the Lower River instead are hauling in whitefish, chums, sockeyes and the occasional chinook. Once-bare racks finally are being hung with salmon cut to dry for winter, though not in the numbers of years past.
Many villagers and Bethel residents say limits are necessary to save chinook runs. But debate continues over how to best to manage the prized kings. Villagers argue for at least some chance to target them. Some want to help oversee the fisheries.
When the first window for driftnetting opened up June 20, pent-up desire for salmon was so strong that there was a near-logjam of skiffs.
"I've never seen the river like that, even in commercial days," Mary Sattler, a former state representative who lives in Bethel, said at a recent meeting of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. The group advises fish managers about openings, fishing gear and harvests.
"You look out and you see 50 or 100 boats," she said. "You are so close you could see the expressions in the boat next to you."
Federal managers took the unprecedented step of closing subsistence king fishing on the Kuskokwim River on May 20 at the start of the chinook season.
While some restrictions kicked in each of the last four years, this year marked the first time subsistence fishermen were barred from targeting kings before they got going.
Kuskokwim fish managers did allow setnets with small, 4-inch mesh openings within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Parts of the river were so thick with them it was like combat setnetting. Upriver from the federal refuge, those small nets were allowed for driftnetting.
A mostly-empty rack
Fish and Game managers say kings tend to bounce off 4-inch nets and go upriver to spawn. But villagers say the nets aren't the old-style nets used for whitefish. These are heavier and designed to catch salmon. Some worry they may be catching more kings than anyone expected. Managers say they are evaluating them anew.
A month after the closure, fish managers allowed driftnetting in short bursts, starting downriver from Bethel. More of the river was opened up after the main pulse of chinooks pushed by. By Monday, the entire portion of the river within the federal refuge was open to driftnets with mesh gaps up to 6 inches, big enough for kings. Subsistence users can keep them as an incidental catch.
Happy fish camp photos have been showing up all over Facebook, said the working group's chairwoman, Bev Hoffman.
After 10 p.m. on a recent, sunny Bethel evening, a steady stream of skiffs motored into the Bethel small boat harbor. Dozens of SUVs and trucks were parked in the dirt lots. Toddlers and children in life jackets scampered out of boats while their parents toted fish. People said they had been checking setnets.
April Nick, 32, and her husband unloaded their skiff while three of their children tumbled into their truck. The family had gone out on June 26 to check their setnet site and plucked out red salmon, a whitefish and a Dolly Varden trout, enough to fill a big tub in the back of their truck.
Two days before, they took advantage of a driftnet opening and caught about 30 fish.
"We're finally cutting fish!" Nick said. "I feel so happy."
Yet worry lingered.
"We try to fill our racks two or three times. So far it's only about one-fourth full," Nick said.
Residents and managers say views gradually are shifting from "it's our fish" to one of conservation.
"If that's what they have to do for four or five years, it should pay off," subsistence fisherman Jim Pete, 43, said. He said he broke down and bought a 4-inch setnet that he and his cousin-uncle, Gary Pete, 50, had just checked. They caught a red, a whitefish and several chums.
Driftnetting is more efficient. During one of the recent openings, Pete caught about 60 hefty chums, eight to 10 reds and five kings. He was planning to change his driftnet to one with slightly smaller openings in the hope of getting fewer chums and more reds, which have smaller heads.
Along Bethel roadsides, someone has planted colorful, salmon-shaped signs with a message.
"Save," says one on Main Street.
"Today," reads the next.
But the cutouts don't always stay in place for long.
2013's dismal king run
Chums are plentiful and fish managers aren't worried about sockeyes. But returns of Kuskokwim king salmon have been dropping since 2007.
Last year's estimated run of 95,000 kings was the lowest on record. Fewer than 48,000 were estimated to make it to spawning grounds, also a record low. The average Kuskokwim run size between 1976 and 2013? 239,000 kings, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Managers closely watch king numbers and behavior through test fisheries, harvest reports, aerial surveys, counts at weirs, and radio tagging.
The prospect of a salmon shortage in winter scares people. Salmon not only is a traditional food for Alaska Native residents here, but it's also a valuable and healthy protein source in a part of Alaska where jobs are scarce and ground beef tops $7 a pound at the village store.
Fritz Charles, a subsistence fisherman originally from Tuntutuliak who has lived in Bethel for almost 20 years, warned the working group in mid-June that people were so tense over the closure, violence could erupt and "lives could be lost." He promised to spread the word fishing would come soon.
After the successful drift openings, "all that tension has been relieved," he said at the group's June 26 meeting.
He said he passed maybe 30 to 40 boats around the Johnson River as he went to driftnet at his "chum hot spot" during the June 24 opener. He caught close to 100 chums, eight or nine reds and 15 kings, using a full-length net.
"Everybody's really happy right now regardless of all the restrictions that we had this year," Charles said.
Not everyone. Native activist and Iditarod musher Mike Williams of Akiak called into the working group meeting from fish camp to say that most people haven't gotten enough. In an interview, he explained they are worried about flies and rains that interfere with the drying of late-caught fish.
"Living out here, the highest cost of living in the nation and poorest people in the nation, we depend on surviving on the fish," said Williams, chief of Yupiit Nation, a group of 19 tribes.
Villagers say they are trying to gain a role in not just advising, but managing the fisheries.
James Nicori, 65, of Kwethluk said from fish camp that he's been fishing for more than 50 years. As a boy he was told that early kings are mainly male. Targeting them wouldn't hurt spawning, he said. He flew into Anchorage last winter to make the same point to the Federal Subsistence Board.
At their fish camp near the village upriver from Bethel, Nicori's wife and daughter were cutting chums and reds from a recent drift opening. But they didn't get the kings like they used to.
A new inter-tribal fish commission wants villages to support a temporary moratorium on chinook salmon fishing, Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said. The group hopes to send a conservation message to Bering Sea factory trawlers and the fish managers.
Villagers often blame factory trawler bycatch of kings for the decline.
But the cause is more complex and probably is the result of multiple factors, said Kevin Schaberg, the state fish research biologist in Bethel.
Some talk about global warming, a flood of subsistence fishermen, or even lingering effects of aggressive commercial harvests of Kuskokwim kings, which ended in 1987.
In 2012, dozens of subsistence fishermen defied closures and were charged with using restricted gear or fishing in closed sections of the Kuskokwim.
This time, there isn't any organized protest and 90 percent of the fishermen are following all the rules, said Brian McCaffery, supervisory wildlife biologist for the Yukon Delta refuge who was acting refuge manager in May when he closed the chinook fishery.
Some fished at the right time and place but with "too large a mesh size or too long a net," McCaffery said. "It's gear they think they have their best shot at feeding their families."
The rules are confusing. In the June 24 opening, for instance, drift fishermen on a popular stretch of river between the Kuskokwim's confluence with the Johnson River and Tuluksak could only use nets 150 feet long, while those south of there could use more efficient nets twice that length. Violators with the wrong size net got warnings, McCaffery said.
The tribe for Bethel -- Orutsararmiut Native Council, or ONC -- urges patience and conservation.
Zack Brink, ONC executive director, has filled his smokehouse in midtown Bethel with Kuskokwim salmon caught from his setnet site near Oscarville. As of late last week, his family had caught about 70 salmon including six kings, plus the whitefish that he grew up with and loves. The family let kings go that were still alive.
There's plenty of fish, he said, if people don't insist on chinooks.
Small but deadly nets
McCaffery and Aaron Poetter, Fish and Game management biologist for the Kuskokwim area, said sentiment has shifted toward conservation just in the past year.
While some Kuskokwim residents oppose any rules and others want a complete moratorium on kings, "we are seeing more people carrying that torch that conservation is a good thing for the chinook, for our future generations," Poetter said.
Mark Leary, 49, a working group member from upriver in Napaimute, said the king run seems strong.
In state waters outside of the federal refuge, villagers were able to use the smaller 4-inch nets as driftnets. Leary said they are easy to maneuver, powerful -- and deadly.
Driftnetting over the course of the week, he caught 60 kings that he released alive back into the river. He also caught more than 80 chums and reds and 60-odd whitefish. Other kings were damaged from nets or banging around the boat. He kept those.
"I was really struggling with letting all those fish, those kings go," Leary reported to the working group in late June. "That's not what subsistence people do, you know, catch and let go."
An 8-year-old cousin was with him, he said. He asked her if she knew why he was doing it.
"Yeah," she told him. "So they can multiply."
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com, 907-257-4390 or in Bethel at 907-545-7926.
By LISA DEMER