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Kuskokwim fish wars heat up again as silvers enter the river

Lisa Demer
From left to right, Mary Sattler, Bob Aloysius and Bev Hoffman listen to testimony during the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting in Bethel, AK on Thursday, June 26, 2014. The salmon working group advises fisheries managers on salmon harvest issues. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Kuskokwim River villagers say they accepted early summer fishing restrictions that cost them a chance at treasured king salmon in order to boost the struggling run. But they are outraged over state-approved commercial openings over the past week, before upriver villagers have caught enough fish to store for winter.

While the chinook have passed by, commercial driftnet boats were allowed to target chums and silvers, even though villagers are counting on the latter as their replacement food for kings.

Members of a Kuskokwim salmon advisory group on July 8 urged against a Lower Kuskokwim River commercial fishing opening and on July 16 took a vote 7-1 against one. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowed three commercial openers -- on July 14, then again Friday and Monday --  from Bethel to the river’s mouth.

“Upriver residents are steaming mad and feel that no one cares about the fact that they need these fish,” Bev Hoffman, the Bethel-based co-chairwoman of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, wrote Monday to Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell.

Another group co-chairman, Mark Leary, who fishes upriver near Napaimute and splits his time between there and Bethel, also emailed Campbell, urging her “to intervene and stop all commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim until all of the People along the River have met their needs.”

On Friday, about 50 people upset over the commercial openings gathered in Lower Kalskag, and more phoned in, according to Leary. Two villages and the regional Native nonprofit, Kuskokwim Native Association, have signed resolutions seeking federal management of the Kuskokwim fisheries to ensure subsistence is a priority.

The conflict is set for discussion Wednesday afternoon at the working group meeting.

Among the items on the agenda: discussion of the relationship between the working group and the state, a request to meet with Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty over “inequitable allocation of salmon,” and consideration of votes of “no confidence” in the current leadership of the Fish and Game subsistence and commercial fishing divisions.

Villagers say they also are turning to U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski to get salmon upriver. Begich “agrees the situation is dire,” spokeswoman Heather Handyside said.

“Our office is reaching out to Commissioner Campbell to request that she take another look at this issue and determine what can be done to help fishermen catch the food they need to feed their families,” Handyside said in an email.

Campbell was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment, her office said.

Jeff Regnart, director of the state’s commercial fishing division, said the state listens to the salmon working group.

“That’s what they are there for, to bring information, ideas, philosophies, potential directions for the fisheries, to a group discussion,” Regnart said. “They are a huge value to our understanding of the fishery. They are a real instrumental part in the management of that river.”

But “there are going to be times we don’t always agree.”

The state was following its Kuskokwim management plan in allowing the commercial openers, said Regnart, who is based in Anchorage, and Aaron Poetter, the state’s Bethel-based management biologist.

“We are on the very, very tail end of the chum run and the very earliest portion of the coho (silver) run,” Poetter said.

The chums had already started to deteriorate by the time they reached the middle river and approached spawning beds, and villagers said they were no longer trying to catch them, Poetter said.

Some complained  of “chum chucking,” in which those salmon are turned back into the river. Poetter said those reports are turned over to troopers to determine if there is illegal “wanton waste.”

The silvers, though, are highly desirable, especially this year.

Usually, Bethel residents and villagers have filled their drying racks and smokehouses by now and commercial fishermen “hammer those silvers,” said Leary, who grew up commercial fishing. “But this year we are saying ‘no.’ The people need them. That’s the cry that’s being heard everywhere.”

“This year, everything is different,” Hoffman said. “There’s more pressure on the chums, more pressure on the silvers. And that’s going to be the way it is for several years to come.”

While state managers acknowledge that villagers need an opportunity to catch silvers, that doesn’t mean they get the first ones that come in, Poetter said.

No silvers were caught in the first opener, but fishermen caught 1,800 in the second round and 3,300 in Monday’s opener, Poetter said. Only about 18,000 chums were caught over the three fishing windows, he said. About 160 commercial fishermen participated in last week’s opportunities, Regnart said.

“There was a harvestable surplus of chums available and we were not directing commercial fisheries specifically for coho salmon at that point,” Poetter said.

The chum run appears to be on the low side of the number needed for spawning, he said. Villagers say the chum also are important to feed wild animals and flow back to the ecosystem.

The commercial fishermen work out of skiffs and sell to the Coastal Villages Region Fund, a nonprofit seafood company that processes salmon at its plant in Platinum and also owns a Bering Sea pollock trawler and processor, the Northern Hawk, interests in other pollock boats, as well as crab and cod fishing vessels, according to its company newsletter.

Coastal Villages has asked the state to hold off on further openings until there are more coho to harvest, Poetter said.

A Coastal Villages representative told the salmon group that it lost $4 million last year on its Kuskokwim fishing businesses and expects to lose money this year too, Hoffman said in her letter to Campbell. That upset subsistence fishermen even more.

The commercial fishermen made little, Leary said.

“They subsidize it through their pollock fishery, a very lucrative fishery,” Leary said. Some blame bycatch from trawlers for the drop in king salmon though biologists say the problem stems from multiple causes. “We have a commercial fishery that’s worth very little being subsidized by the very people being blamed for the decline of the fish,” Leary said.

The state had considered another commercial opener on Friday but decided against it, Poetter said. But it will continue to monitor the run strength, primarily through the Bethel test fishery, and will keep talking to commercial and subsistence fishermen, he said.

“We just want to be heard. We want to be listened to. We want to be respected,” Leary said.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” Hoffman said. “We all have to take deep breaths because we all have to work together.”

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.