Managers May Close Kuskokwim to King Salmon Fishing Earlier than Planned

The waters of Kuskokwim River are free of ice and at the moment open to subsistence king salmon fishing, but that could quickly change, depending on how many fisherman are targeting and catching king salmon in a year that managers believe is crucial for viability of the run.

Brian McCaffery, the Acting Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager and the Federal In-Season Manager, says the early season plan had the federal Kuskokwim waters closing to gillnets larger than 4 inches as of a week from Tuesday.

Ice passes by Bethel, AK on Sunday, May 4, 2014.  (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK - Bethel)
Ice passes by Bethel, AK on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

“Right now the game plan is for the 20th, but if it turns out that a lot of people are out there targeting and successfully harvesting kings, we may need to make that date earlier to protect those fish that are trying to get upriver that are trying to get to the spawning grounds further up,” McCaffery said.

He says that there are concerns that the run might be building earlier as it has in other early break up years, but he doesn’t know with any certainty when the run will come in.

That said, Bethel resident Fritz Charles called into KYUK’s Friday Talk Line show and told listeners that the closures are not yet in place, and that it’s “a free for all.”

McCaffery says words like that are disappointing.

“We were hoping that given the widespread information that’s been disseminated across the year about the threats to the king salmon, that folks would use some individual restraint and not target the king salmon at this time and focus on some of the other fish species,” McCaffery said.

Later Friday, Charles explained that on one side, he is for conservation and making sure his grandchildren enjoy king salmon, but on the hand…

“Of course everyone one wants the fresh taste of fish,” Charles said. “And now is the time to do it, before any regulations or anything sets in place – that’s my personal opinion.”

Charles says he’s not hearing of any kings being caught as of Friday afternoon. This year if McCaffery sees large scale preseason king salmon harvest, he says in addition to closing the gillnet harvest earlier, he may also have to reduce or eliminate what was hoped to be a small cultural and social king salmon harvest of around 1,000 kings. He also may have to change or cancel the 6” gillnet openings penciled in for the last week of June.

2013 brought the lowest Kuskokwim king salmon run on record of around 94,000 kings, with only about 47,000 escaping to spawn, well below the bottom of the escapement goal. All of the weirs saw the lowest passage on record.

Whatever early harvest takes place this year could disproportionally affect the fish that head hundreds of miles upriver, says McCaffery.

“We suspect that many of these salmon that are headed up to the farthest reaches of the headwaters are among those that come in early,” McCaffery said. “The folks upriver have made it very clear that they want and need those stocks to be protected.”

McCaffery says his crews may be travel this weekend to see how many fishermen are out. Enforcement crews were planning on beginning around May 20th, but they may arrive earlier if necessary.

“We’re really hoping that with some very conservative actions which we realize will take sacrifice and will cause some hardship for people that we that may be able to have a better chance at having healthy populations down the road, not just for this generation but for generations still to come,” McCaffery said.

Click here to view the early season regulation outlook and a letter from McCaffery explaining the consequences of the early season harvest.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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