Federal managers are returning control of this summer's subsistence salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim River and its salmon tributaries to the state, but the number of those fish returning to spawn is still alarmingly low.
At the start of the season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over management of subsistence salmon fishing within the waters of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in order to protect and rebuild troubled king salmon runs.
Neil Lalonde, the federal in-season subsistence manager and refuge manager, announced Wednesday that with most king (chinook) salmon past the refuge boundary at Aniak and chum and red salmon moving into the river in bigger numbers, control would revert to the state Department of Fish and Game.
Federal managers had limited subsistence fishing and closed all fishing to nonrural residents -- meaning that visitors, newcomers and residents from outside 32 federally designated villages were not allowed to fish with hooks and lines, dipnets, fish wheels or any other gear type.
Under state management, that ban is lifted and any qualified Alaska resident can fish around the clock with those methods as long as kings are released.
State managers also had limited targeted fishing for kings in state waters past the refuge boundary in Aniak.
They expect to announce additional subsistence openings with gillnets now that the king salmon are moving farther upriver and more chum and red salmon are moving in. Those openings likely will be on Wednesdays and Saturdays starting Saturday, though a final decision hasn't yet been made, said Aaron Poetter, the state's Kuskokwim area management biologist.
The number of king salmon moving into the Kuskokwim River still is dramatically below last year's count at this point in the run, based on catch numbers from a test fishery operated by Fish and Game near Bethel, but they're still coming in.
"Mounting evidence suggests that the 2015 chinook salmon run was early and weak," Fish and Game managers said in an announcement this week.
The number of chum salmon also is very low, the Bethel test fishery shows.
And while the red count also had been on the low side, a big slug of reds (sockeye) is moving up the Kuskokwim, according to the test fishery.
The weighted catch number -- from a formula that considers the amount of time spent fishing as well as the count -- for Tuesday was 214 reds and for Wednesday, 161. Both counts are high and Tuesday's number was the most on a single day in 10 years.
State managers have announced commercial sockeye salmon openers Friday near Quinhagak on Kuskokwim Bay and in Goodnews Bay, which opens into Kuskokwim Bay, but in limited areas to provide a sanctuary for king salmon.
No commercial openings within the main stem of the Kuskokwim River are planned until more chum make it upriver, Poetter said.
"The chum salmon run is showing so poorly that we're going to have continue with the conservative approach when it comes to chum salmon management at this point," he said.
As of Wednesday, the weighted cumulative chum count was 721.
"That is comparable to 1997, which was one of our crash years," he said. "It looks really bad."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing