Rural Alaska

Federal action shuts down fishing in refuge by non-rural anglers

Federal managers have greatly expanded their authority over salmon-producing waters in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, including a long stretch of the Kuskokwim River, by shutting down all fishing by nonrural residents to protect king salmon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in-season manager, Neil Lalonde, last week shut down fishing by nonrural residents, and the decision is not sitting well with some locals.

The federal "special action" could last until July 20 and affects newcomers, visitors and tourists hoping for a fly-fishing adventure -- no fishing for rainbows, trout, grayling, salmon or anything else in the Kuskokwim and salmon tributaries within the federal refuge.

People who have lived in designated rural areas including Bethel at least a year are considered federally qualified rural residents and can fish with small mesh gillnets anchored to the river bottom during scheduled subsistence openings, and with other gear as long as king salmon are released.

Before the new action, federal authority had been limited to kings.

The decision, unless lifted, will temporarily shut down as many as 11 guiding businesses that cater to visitors on the Kuskokwim and Aniak rivers, said John Chythlook, the Kuskokwim sportfish biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. Outfitters, air taxis and other businesses also may be affected, he said.

On Wednesday, Lalonde told the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group he acted after learning of a loophole in restrictions already in place that could have allowed extensive fishing by people from outside the region.

Some at the meeting said Lalonde, who is from Louisiana and in his first year on the refuge, overreacted. He said he needed to protect the kings. Some said he couldn't just close down part of what's normally a state-run fishery.

State managers say they cannot intervene once the federal government asserts its authority over subsistence, and state options are limited until the state Board of Fisheries meets in January on Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta issues.

"I would really, really like to see people act like adults and speak with each other and find a way to reword that special action so that it does what we hoped it would do and not be so overreaching," Sleetmute resident Barb Carlson said at Wednesday's salmon meeting.

She said she knew both the state and federal governments had limitations, but even so, "I feel like we're not making any attempt to work together and using this legalese language to hide behind."

Lalonde had to leave the meeting early and efforts to speak with him later Wednesday and Thursday were unsuccessful.

One business affected is that of Bev Hoffman, co-chair of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group and who along with family owns Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures, a small charter, bird watching and guiding operation.

Hoffman has been one of the region's most outspoken advocates for king, or chinook, conservation.

"There are other species, nonsalmon species, that people come for who aren't federally qualified users (established rural residents)," Hoffman said. "They are looking for rainbows and Dollies and grayling."

Her philosophy, she said, is "fish first" and conservation of king salmon. The goal is to ensure that kings reach spawning grounds and that if there are enough, people who rely on salmon for subsistence get them.

"Our business has not targeted chinook in forever," she said. "This came as a surprise."

She said clients are scheduled to arrive July 10. The closure may be lifted by then.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.