Kings remain low on Kuskokwim; chum and reds running strong

Salmon caught during the June 24, 2017 gillnet opening on the Kuskokwim. (Teresa Cotsirilos / KYUK Public Media)

Anyone hoping to hear good news about the king salmon run on the Kuskokwim is going to be disappointed; the numbers are just not there. No decision on another opening is likely until Friday.

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Let’s start with the good news: chum and red salmon are running strong. Both are in the beginning of their run and healthy so far.

However the number of kings remains very low. State fishery biologists say that the run is on par with 2013. In that year, the Kuskokwim saw its lowest king run on record, and the species did not meet drainage-wide escapement goals. Those goals are set to maintain the species’ population as well as ensure robust subsistence harvests.

Here’s the king run by the current numbers: the Bethel sonar station has counted just over 28,000 kings this season. The Kuskokwim is about 60 percent through the run, but it’s only seen about 43 percent of the kings needed to reach escapement. Already, thousands of kings have been harvested from the lower river.

There was no agreement among those attending the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group meeting on Wednesday about what to do during the rest of the season.

Some attending the meeting said that they were thankful for this weekend’s opening and hoped to see another opening soon. Others said that every king salmon counts and needs to remain in the water.

And then there were those who said that the numbers of fish are changing, and so should we. Some suggested using more live release gear like beach seines, fish wheels and dip nets. One member said her fish camp was investing in webbing to protect drying racks from bugs. Another suggested learning from other areas of Alaska how to process fish in wet weather.

King salmon are expected to swim up the Kuskokwim through mid-July. Federal managers say that closing the river until then doesn’t balance the social and cultural need to fish with the need to protect escapement.

State fishery managers say that not meeting escapement one year isn’t likely to hurt the sustainability of the kings. When multiple years back-to-back don’t meet escapement, then the species could be in trouble.

This decade has been a mixed bag for king salmon. There have been two years that the kings did not meet escapement: 2010 and 2013. In the two years between, 2011 and 2012, they barely met escapement. The kings exceeded high escapement goals in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will meet with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission to consider whether to hold an opening soon.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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