With the controversial fish trials over and done with in Bethel, Alaska, villagers are watching the Kuskokwim River for signs of better times for 2013. On the heels of one of the worst salmon returns in years, and a subsequent revolt on river closures that landed dozens of fishermen in court, river managers have come up with an access plan for this summer to try to dampen the disappointment and disobedience of 2012.

The plan includes crafting a provision that would allow elders to be able to fish even if some closures are necessary – an option described as "a new management tool."

On Friday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced its 2013 Kuskokwim River king salmon forecast. It predicts 160,000–240,000 fish, with a drainage-wide goal of getting 65,000–120,000 of the kings to spawning grounds. If the run meets these predictions, Fish and Game has said there will be enough fish to allow people to go fishing to feed their families.

In 2012, with a run size of about 135,000 fish and a subsistence harvest of about 58,000 fish, the king salmon spawning goal was missed by just under 45,000 fish.

Looking now to the start of the 2013 season, out of caution, some poorly producing tributaries of the Kuskokwim River will start the year with restrictions and limitations. But the Kuskokwim River itself will be open to what river managers call "unrestricted gillnet mesh size." They are, however, quick to point out restrictions on the Kusko may again be necessary for 2013 if the fish fail to show up.

If that happens, management actions may include salmon fishing closures, subsistence fishing restrictions, rolling closures, limitations on net size, the use of hooks and lines, and bag limits.

Yet even if the salmon available for subsistence harvest is very small, managers have one more option: the ability to designate an "Elder's Fishery," which would allow anyone 60 years or older to go out and fish. The elder fishermen may have family assistance, but the elder must be present and the family members must be close family members, defined as those within a "second degree of kindred" – parents, siblings, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and in-laws.

"King salmon harvested during an 'Elder's Fishery' are intended to contribute to the subsistence needs of elders" and provide an "opportunity for the passing of knowledge about cultural fishing practices from older generations to younger generations," the Department of Fish and Game explained in a news release describing its approach to the 2013 Kuskokwim River fishing season.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com