BETHEL -- Almost as soon as the newly formed Kuskokwim River tribal fish group convened its first meeting this week, the challenge of managing declining king salmon was apparent.
Thirty-three tribes were invited to be part of the new Kuskokwim River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission, which is preparing to co-manage the fisheries next year, though some want to assume that role immediately. It's the first tribal fish management group on the Kuskokwim; a similar group just organized on the Yukon River.
The nearly 30 tribal representatives and some of the audience members at the commission's organizational meeting in Bethel quickly found much to disagree on in terms of what should be done to conserve kings.
In discussions about gear, some said gillnets with smaller, 4-inch mesh openings are an effective way to protect king, or chinook, salmon. State and federal managers are planning to use that tool this year, allowing smaller fish to be caught while theoretically causing kings to bounce off.
But others on the new tribal commission insisted those nets kill kings. They pushed for support to return to nets with large openings. Big 8-inch nets have been banned for years. They were highly efficient -- deadly to king salmon during the days of in-river commercial fishing that drew hundreds of fishermen.
Some tribal members emphasized conservation; others talked of the deep need to fish for subsistence. Some also expressed discontent with state and federal management, which didn't always understand village life and people, they said.
Populations of chinook salmon are in trouble all over Alaska, including on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
Last year, federal managers took over the Kuskokwim chinook fishery and shut it down before it got started. That allowed an estimated 124,000 kings to reach spawning grounds, but also meant just 12,000 kings were harvested for subsistence, the lowest take on record.
On Wednesday, the manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge told the tribal commission there will be a similar closure this year. Fishing for chinook is expected to close May 21 from the river mouth to the village of Tuluksak, and a week later the closure will extend to the refuge boundary at Aniak, said Neil Lalonde, the refuge manager. State managers will make decisions outside the federal refuge.
"I'm not sure I liked what just happened," said Mark Leary, the tribal representative from Napaimute who splits his time between the upriver village and Bethel. "Once again, they came here and told us this is how it's going to be. I hope that's the last time this happens."
He serves on the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, which includes a number of tribal representatives but is advisory.
"This is a management capacity," stressed Arthur Lake, a tribal representative from Kwigillingok on the Bering Sea coast. "I want tribes and people to understand that. Management. Not advisory."
Federal and state authorities should embrace the experiences of Alaska Native people, who can prevent mistakes like setting up a test fishery on the wrong side of the river, he said.
Federal managers said the commission will play a role, but its organizational meeting was still in progress and fishing season was coming up fast.
"I do want to point out -- this commission didn't exist," said Geoff Haskett, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Alaska. "You are creating it right now."
The federal strategy was based on what villages proposed to the Federal Subsistence Board, he said. Federal managers also traveled to 11 villages to hear from residents before fishing season.
The tribal commission appointed three members to work with state and federal managers this year. They are James Charles, representing Tuntutuliak, Greg Roczicka of Bethel and Nick Kameroff, representing Aniak.
Federal and state managers say they will allow villagers to target other fish this year in the Kuskokwim using short nets with small mesh openings that are anchored down. But those nets aren't intended to catch kings.
Some tribal leaders at the meeting said Alaska Native people managed their fish and wildlife for 10,000 years. The problems only began with motor boats and big nets -- introduced by white people, said Roczicka, natural resources director for Bethel's tribe.
Jonathan Samuelson, who lives in Anchorage and is the tribal representative for the small village of Georgetown, said he has traveled up and down the river his whole life. Different villages are like different worlds, he said. But they can speak with one voice.
"This is our river. It has always been our river. Now here we are. This is our table. We can invite people to this table as we see fit," Samuelson said.
The commission decided to end Wednesday's session in a closed-door tribal caucus to look for common ground.