Officials Consider Proposed Federal Takeover of Kuskokwim Salmon Fishery

After a summer of long Chinook salmon closures and a weak chum run on the Kuskokwim river, middle and upper river subsistence fishermen eagerly await word about whether the federal government will take control of the fishery.

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The Office of Subsistence Management in Anchorage is preparing to present the Federal Subsistence Board with a recommendation on whether to federalize the salmon fishery, which is currently under state control.

Evelyn Thomas is the Tribal Council President in Crooked Creek, a community of about 100 people located upriver from Bethel. She says her tribal council plans to pass a resolution in support of federalization. She says the state has not listened.

“They keeping wanting to have [commercial] openings for silvers and late chum run when we haven’t even gotten enough, subsistence users don’t have fish yet, I know here in Crooked Creek, nobody has enough,” said Thomas.

Gene Peltola Junior is Assistant Regional Director for the federal Office of Subsistence Management in Anchorage.

They’re currently responding to a growing number of resolutions from tribes and groups who want to ensure they get silver salmon. His team is in the early stages of drafting a recommendation based on current and historic data on silver salmon.

“There may not necessarily be an allocation between the federally qualified users aspect of it, that’s one part we’re determining now, we may not have a full 804 determination or analysis,” said Peltola Junior.

That refers to section 804 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that determines how to distribute a resource that isn’t abundant enough for all subsistence users. His office went through a similar process this spring after the Napaskiak Traditional Council asked that federal managers limit Chinook harvest to Kuskokwim residents and make an allocation strategy.

Peltola was not clear about what a federal takeover could mean for the controversial commercial openings, and simply pointed to ANILCA. Both federal and state law include subsistence priorities. The state is expecting a below average coho run and an above average subsistence demand.

Any federal action would apply to just refuge waters, from the mouth to Aniak.

More and more silver salmon are showing up in the Bethel Test Fishery, and time is short on any potential action. Peltola Junior does not have a firm timeline.

“Fisheries issues are very complex, we’re not dragging our feet whatsoever, but we are taking the appropriate time to come up with a reasonable and appropriate proposal to the Federal Subsistence Board for their consideration,” said Peltola Junior.

The federal subsistence board has a work session for next week. Peltola says he doubts they’ll take up the issue at that meeting and it could take more time to issue a decision.

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