BETHEL -- King salmon are starting to arrive along Western Alaska's two major rivers, and amid deep worries about the cherished but troubled runs, hints of hope are emerging.
It's early in the season, and rural Alaska residents crave fresh fish. Salmon are pushing into the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers later than last year. Residents are catching what they can under ever-tightening rules designed to save kings.
Yukon River subsistence fishermen are muscling dipnets in the hope of scooping up fat-rich chum salmon to dry and smoke for winter. If they catch any kings, which enter the river about the same time, they must toss them back alive. A unique commercial dipnet opportunity for chum opened Thursday, too.
"Our morning test-fish crew caught a good group of kings this morning, so I think this is the real start of the run," Stephanie Schmidt, Yukon area management biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, said in an email Thursday morning. "We should see three pulses of kings enter the river now through the next couple of weeks."
Alaska fishermen won't be allowed to target any of them. Favorable winds last weekend helped trigger salmon to head into the Yukon, where the famed kings travel 1,300 miles without eating over a stretch of 30 days to the Canadian border. Last year, two First Nations communities in the Canadian Yukon territory caught fewer than 100, mostly for ceremonial purposes.
For the second summer in a row, fishing for kings in both the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers was closed at the start of the run, though on the Kuskokwim, a limited special fishery is now open in the federal waters of a national wildlife refuge. Sportfishing on the refuge was shut down to prevent newcomers and visitors from catching even a single king inadvertently.
Sections of the lower Kuskokwim River around Bethel have been thick with nets anchored to the river bottom during openings in which rural fishermen try for chum and sockeye salmon, pike and burbot, sheefish and whitefish of various types. But with few fish making it upriver so far, not many setnets are in the water past Aniak, residents report.
To protect king salmon, federal managers have taken temporary control of the portion of the Kuskokwim River and tributaries within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, from the river mouth to the village of Aniak.
Village residents, biologists and government managers all are watching for king, or chinook, salmon, hoping for a rebounding run after years of conservation.
Being a fish manager assessing salmon runs is kind of like being a forester overseeing logging, said Greg Roczicka, natural resources director with Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council.
"Except the trees are invisible and they move around," Roczicka, one of three tribal representatives working on salmon management this year, said this week at a Kuskokwim salmon meeting. He was quoting a fishery scientist.
Fishing for your own
Rural residents are getting what they can -- including Kuskokwim kings under special community harvest permits. Designated fishermen working through tribal groups started to drift in skiffs with nets designed for kings on Wednesday. As many as 7,000 kings can be caught, split among 32 villages.
"I think they started at 12:01, the minute it opened," said Dustin Wagner, a biologist with Bethel's tribe. More than 50 fishermen with the tribe, known as ONC, have been designated to fish for themselves and others.
As of Wednesday, 14 of 32 eligible communities had signed up, said Neil Lalonde, manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the federal in-season manager.
Some villages outside the refuge have arranged through ONC for someone in Bethel to do their king fishing rather than travel long distances by river, Roczicka said at this week's Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting.
The arrangement of sending fish by plane to far-away villages is not completely satisfactory.
"It's not the same as fishing for your own," said Bethel's Mary Sattler, part of the Kuskokwim working group. "As a fisherman, as somebody who puts up fish, you can't help but kinda feel like that's like somebody giving you road kill. I hate saying that.
"A fish is a fish and we are happy for the fishing. But this is not the solution."
"Good comments," a working group co-chairman, Mark Leary, said during the teleconference from the upriver village of Napaimute.
The Kuskokwim group, a long-standing advisory panel that has shifted over the years from commercial to subsistence focus, voted to push the state for a limited king fishery outside the refuge that would cater to elders. They want an answer by next week.
Aaron Poetter, Kuskokwim area management biologist for Fish and Game, said a fishery for elders could be allowed through an emergency order. In it, people 60 or older could fish for king salmon and would have to be present -- someone else couldn't fish by proxy. If the state decides to open such a fishery, any Alaska resident 60 or older -- not just village residents -- who wanted to target kings could do so in state waters on the Kuskokwim above Aniak, he said.
The department couldn't put any limits on the number of chinook caught through a special fishery for elders -- that would be an allocation that only the state Board of Fisheries can set, he said. But it could limit the hours, type of gear, and net size.
Tensions on the Kuskokwim are high even as king and chum salmon begin to make their way into the middle and upper river. LaMont Albertson, a retired educator who splits his time between Aniak and Anchorage, is pushing a lawsuit over what he sees as unfair treatment of middle and upriver residents who get little opportunity for the fish they so desire. But he picked an inopportune forum in which to talk about it this week: the salmon working group hosted by the state. Albertson, one of the group co-chairmen, was blocked from discussing it.
Mess of nets
Meanwhile, fishing has begun in earnest around Bethel. On Saturday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed the Kuskokwim by plane and counted 227 setnets planted in a 70-mile stretch of lower river between the Johnson and Tuluksak rivers.
"That's basically a three-fold increase from the week before," federal biologist Lew Coggins told the Kuskokwim salmon group.
Some 55 of those nets were clustered on a chokepoint near the village of Oscarville, 5 miles downriver from Bethel, Roczicka said.
Roczicka said he didn't think the concentrated fishing was contributing to low numbers being counted in a Fish and Game test fishery near Bethel.
"More nets in the water doesn't mean you are going to catch more fish," he said. "There might be fewer fish per net."
Many residents are waiting for the kings to go past, the reds to arrive and managers to allow fishing from skiffs.
As of Tuesday, the Bethel test fishery -- in which crews make carefully timed passes by skiff with a drift net -- had reported a cumulative catch adjusted for fishing time of 76 kings, compared to 162 as of the same day last year.
"I'm generally an optimistic person," Leary said. "These numbers really worry me."
Bev Hoffman, working group co-chair, asked state and federal managers what they will do as a result of the low count. They said they are working together and watching the fish counts closely before making any decisions.
Last year, residents of Bethel and villages were able to set their smaller nets around the clock. This year, they are limited to Thursday-through-Sunday mornings. Even with more nets, the limited openings mean there is probably half the fishing effort this year, Lalonde said.
By Wednesday, the test fishery catch number was up only slightly, to 89, still less than half of the year before.
Ray of hope
Hopes that early river breakups on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers would mean early -- and potentially big -- king runs aren't being borne out.
"The waters in the Bering Sea were still pretty cold," said Schmidt, the Yukon area biologist who works out of Emmonak in the summer. "I think that kind of slowed the fish down a bit. It held them out in the ocean."
A resident of the Yukon village of Koyukuk near Galena reported Tuesday that he had heard what locals call the "three-day bird," after its call: "three day, three day, three day."
"Usually when they hear that bird, the chinook salmon should follow within a couple of days," Schmidt said.
A research project involving Fish and Game, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association shows promise. Researchers are studying juvenile chinook heading into the ocean to see what environmental factors affect them.
"Right now, they are catching unbelievable amounts of juvenile chinook," Schmidt said. She told Yukon fishermen on a conference call this week "that's a ray of hope, that the management actions that have been restricting them, seem to be creating more baby chinook salmon."
Biologists estimated last year's Yukon chinook run at about 130,000 fish, largely based on sonar counts at the border, Schmidt said. That is somewhat below the historical average of 143,000. But it was more fish than expected as well as above the worst run on record, the 74,000 that returned in 2013, before the complete king closure, she said.
On the Kuskokwim, there is no sonar counter. Using weir counts and aerial surveys, biologists estimated the 2014 run size at 136,000 kings, far below the average of 243,000. The Kuskokwim count for 2014 was still better than in recent years.