No answers for low Kuskokwim king run

King salmon at a market in Seattle. (Creative Commons photo by Jill /Blue Moonbeam Studio)

The driving question over the last several years, and the one that’s being asked again as biologists warn that 2017 could be the lowest king salmon run on record, is: why is the king run on the Kuskokwim River so low?

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“The simple answer is we really don’t know,” Zach Liller said. He’s the leading Kuskokwim researcher for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We expected the return to be very similar to last year.”

That’s when an estimated 177,000 kings swam up the river.

But instead, half-way through this season’s run, we’re seeing numbers similar to 2013, the year the king salmon stock crashed and about 94, 000 of the fish ran the Kuskokwim.

Why was the predicted run so much higher than the return?

Locals were concerned that state fish biologists were being too optimistic months before the first kings showed up on the river.

The models that predicted this season’s forecast are currently under review by third parties.

Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten said the state is discussing with federal managers how to provide fishing options for subsistence users while protecting the collapsing kings.

“We are considering an opportunity to allow drift gillnets to target sockeye and chum salmon,” Cotten said. “We recognize that’ll be some incidental catch involved with that. That if you’re using gillnets, that that’s just going to allow for some chinook take as well.”

Managers are seeing strong numbers for both sockeye and chum so far this season.

Another option the state will consider is an elder opening, Cotten said. That’s when an elder goes fishing with a family member during a designated time to give elders a taste of fresh fish.

As to concerns that conservation efforts to avoid harvesting salmon could be depleting whitefish, Fish and Game fishery manager Aaron Poetter said that the state cannot measure those numbers.

It has no data on whitefish populations in the Kuskokwim. The best indicator they have to determine changes in these stocks is fishermen’s observations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is meeting with the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission today to consider opening a gillnet opportunity.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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