On the Yukon River, an experimental commercial dipnet fishery was wildly successful this year, landing more than 250,000 chum salmon, providing $1 million in income for village residents and saving thousands of threatened king salmon, says the buyer of the fish.
But on the Kuskokwim River, a dipnet opportunity aimed at subsistence fishermen found few takers and generated more skepticism than success.
On both Western Alaska rivers, the state allowed dipnetting -- with the big round hoops so familiar on the Kenai River -- to give fishermen some opportunity during the summer runs in which chum and king salmon power upriver together.
King salmon runs on both rivers have been declining for years and tough restrictions were put in place to protect them. Early in the season this year when king and chum began their push into the rivers, frustrated fishermen were barred from drifting in boats with long gillnets pulled alongside and couldn't anchor down bigger nets close to shore either.
State managers gave them another tool in dipnets. Any king salmon caught had to be let go, to swim upriver to spawning grounds.
Salmon for Safeway
For the Yukon, this was the second year of commercial dipnetting, and the second boom year for chum catches while king salmon were spared.
While dipnetting is harder physically and less efficient than fishing with long gillnets, Yukon fishermen ultimately embraced it as a way to keep earning and even found it fun, said Jack Schultheis, manager for Kwik'pak Fisheries. The fish company buys Yukon salmon and employs more than 200 locals at its fish processing plant in Emmonak. It also is invested in the Bering Sea pollock fleet.
"It was either you can try dipnetting or not fish at all," Schultheis said.
Yukon commercial fishermen harvested almost 260,000 chum salmon by dipnet this year, which is more than they caught with long gillnets during the summer chum run once chinook salmon had passed and that gear was allowed, said Eric Newland, summer season Yukon area manager for the state Department of Fish and Game.
And they released 5,440 king salmon alive from dipnets.
The total number of summer chum caught commercially on the Yukon this year topped 426,000, the most since 1989, according to Fish and Game. Last year's commercial catch was close, 379,000, and almost half were caught with dipnets, Newland said.
When dipnets were allowed on the Yukon starting in June and into early July, fishing was consistent and predictable for both fishermen and the processor.
Kwik'pak bought the chum whole for 60 cents a pound. Some were marketed as wild Alaska salmon by Safeway in Washington and Oregon. Most ended up in Japan and the United Kingdom, where they typically are marketed as Yukon River salmon. The salmon spent little time in dipnets and were generally higher quality and less bruised than those caught in long gillnets, the fish buyer said.
"It's a nice product. It's fresh out of the ocean," said Fred Bue, subsistence fisheries branch chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With about 1.6 million pounds of fish caught by dipnet, that's "a million dollars' worth of fish versus sit on the beach and do nothing," Schultheis said. If they had been able to use long gillnets the whole time, they likely would have caught three or four times that many, he said
A consulting biologist for Kwik'pak, former state Fish and Game area supervisor Gene Sandone, had dipnetted on the Kenai and proposed the Yukon trial, Schultheis said. The state Board of Fisheries approved it. Kwik'pak bought hoop nets from Donalson's in Anchorage, then sold them to Yukon fishermen for close to $200 each.
Relaxing and exhilarating
Fishermen dipnetted from skiffs. They either anchored at hot spots or cut the motor and drifted quietly downriver, saving gas, Schultheis said. Roughly 80 fishermen dipnetted, about half the number who fished a recent commercial opening with big nets, he said. Dipnetters tended to be younger fishermen.
"Some were going along the sandbars, right on the bottom, and drifting through there," Newland said. "Some were sitting and holding their dipnets in holes and waiting for fish to hit."
Dipnetting was more relaxing and, when fish hit, more exhilarating than fishing with long nets, he said. The pace was slow, stretched over 12 hours a day, six days a week, compared to high-pressure driftnet openings limited to six hours.
"There's only certain places you can drift. So the drift fishery is usually very crowded and overpopulated with boats, where the dipnet fishery is ... more laid back and not as hectic," Schultheis said. "People could go home and eat lunch, go back out again."
Randell Agathluk, a fisherman from Emmonak, 10 miles from the Bering Sea near the mouth of the Yukon, said there was a learning curve to dipnetting by boat. He would set his anchor and let his skiff move with the current.
He lost three nets hitting snags before he started to tie them to his skiff. Dipnetting by gripping the net pole against the current was hard on the arms, too.
"The first time trying it, holy moly!" Agathluk said.
But he caught hundreds of fish and was able to make money for gas, nets and other supplies, he said. He caught two king salmon dipnetting and let them go. Later, when the rules on king salmon and gear changed, he was able to keep three caught with his gillnet.
He'd rather use his long net to make more money, but dipnetting was fun and better than nothing, he said.
For Yukon village residents, commercial fishing is the main industry, unlike along the Kuskokwim, which runs to the hub city of Bethel and a range of possible jobs, including with the region's leading employer, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
"Out here, a couple of hundred dollars means a lot," Schultheis said. That can buy the gas needed for moose hunting or to catch salmon for drying racks or to get a seal, he said.
The Yukon dipnet fishery closed in early July when chinook had moved upriver and longer gillnets were again allowed.
Like threading a needle
The Board of Fisheries this year approved dipnetting on the Kuskokwim for subsistence. Residents initially were excited but few ended up with salmon in their nets, typically 4 or 5 feet in diameter.
"It's like threading a needle with a dipnet. You're lucky if you get a fish!" Thad Tikiun, a Bethel resident and board member of the Bethel tribe, said in late June, not long after trying out his new gear.
He bought two dipnets, one for a friend who then changed his mind. He caught nothing. Someone he knows caught a king but had to release it.
"I dipped the other day," Tikiun said. "If a person came by, I would have sold him my net for $1."
The tribe for Bethel, Orutsararmiut Native Council, bought 10 of the big hoop nets that anyone, tribal member or not, could check out for two days at a time. It encouraged dipnetting as a way to save king salmon. Local stores stocked dipnets, too.
As soon as KYUK announced the tribe's loaner program, people showed up to try them, said Curtis Mann, an environmental coordinator with ONC's natural resources department, who oversaw the dipnets.
Maybe 25 people checked them out over a few weeks, he said. The only other fishing allowed in the Kuskokwim around Bethel then was with nets anchored to the river floor and designed more for whitefish than salmon.
Just two people reported catching fish with dipnets, Mann said.
"This is a safer method, a conservation method," he said. "It's just getting used to it."
The big round nets are heavy and challenging to manage. One guy figured out a way to rig it to the skiff.
Both rivers are immense. The Yukon is about a mile wide around Emmonak. The Kuskokwim is about a half-mile wide in the lower portion. Biologists say fishermen know the in-river channels where fish move and the eddies where they pool.
Aaron Poetter, Fish and Game's Bethel-based Kuskokwim area manager, said regulators anticipated challenges there this first year.
"We got a variety of opinions, from 'It's the worst thing we've ever done' to 'Hey, there's some potential use for this here,'" Poetter said.
The Yukon has bigger salmon runs than the Kuskokwim, which may explain the difference in success rates. On peak days, more than 100,000 chum salmon pass the fish counter at Pilot Station, more than 120 miles up the Yukon. Biologists don't have a comparison for the Kuskokwim but believe the salmon count there is lower. There's currently no sonar counter on the Kuskokwim, but biologists are hoping to get one in to improve their management.
"It's really effective up on the Yukon because of the volume of fish they get, the pulse coming through to the river," Poetter said.
Still, it's a good way to try and save chinook salmon, since they can be released easily from dipnets, managers and fish buyers said.
Both dipnet opportunities are now closed.
"There wasn't one king killed during dipnet season," Schultheis said.