Drying fish and having trouble with flies? A local biologist wants to help

Bug webbing hangs around John McIntyre’s drying rack near Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. (Photo courtesy of John McIntyre)

As fishing restrictions push salmon harvests on the Kuskokwim River later into the wet part of summer, families are seeking new ways to dry their fish and keep bugs away. A local fish biologist has a possible solution and is seeking volunteers to test it out.

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Last summer, stories of spoiled fish traveled along the Kuskokwim River. The rain seemed constant and the flies relentless. Families lost catches from entire fishing openings to rot and maggots. Aaron Moses is a federal fishery biologist at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. He saw what was happening and wanted to help.

Moses grew up in Toksook Bay and now lives in Bethel. He watched as families hung mosquito netting around their fish racks to keep the flies away. The netting kept the bugs out, but it also kept out something that the rows of salmon slabs and strips needed to dry: air flow.

“A lot of that mosquito netting only allows five to 15 percent of air to flow through it,” Moses explained, “and so it caused a lot of the fish to spoil.”

Fish racks may need more airflow than before. In recent years, restrictions aimed at conserving king salmon have changed how people fish. Fishery managers have restricted subsistence salmon fishing to brief windows, six to 24 hours long, as the kings pass through the lower and middle river. As a result, people try to catch as many fish as they can at once, and they pack their fish racks more densely than they used to.

“In the past, people would go out and catch 15 to 20 [fish] at a time and be like, ‘Okay, we’re done for the day,’” Moses said. “Now with these openings, people are trying to get 50 to 100 fish at one time, and so it takes a lot more work to make sure that every single one of them is going to be able to dry properly.”

Moses is a scientist, so he started researching and looking for a webbing that would keep flies out while allowing air to flow in. The answer came while he was catching up with an old friend who lives on a fruit farm in Oregon.

“And he showed me this netting that keeps the bugs out, and he said it’s been very successful. I thought I’d give it a try,” Moses said. “And it’s actually worked out a lot better than I even imagined it would.”

The difference is that the webbing is woven into triangles, rather than squares, and the design allows 85 percent or more of the air to flow through it. It’s also made from PVC and highly durable.

“We were just pulling on it, but we were also cutting it and trying to see if it would rip like other things do when you make a little nick on it,” Moses described. “But it’s interwoven, so even if you put a little puncture hole in it, the way it’s woven won’t allow it to rip.”

Moses will send out the webbing to anyone who wants to try it in the region. For elders living nearby, he’ll hang it up himself. The netting is free, and so far 15 families have taken him up on his offer.

“From the pictures I’ve gotten, a lot of these fish camps look really nice and the bug netting has been very successful,” Moses said, laughing. “I got a comment yesterday saying that, ‘This is the first time there’s no bugs on the backbones of my salmon.'”

The webbing has also kept away another pest that has plagued fish dryers no matter what season they’re working in: the many birds that peck at the hanging fish.

Distributing the webbing is one piece of a larger project. Moses is also interviewing subsistence families along the Kuskokwim river and nearby coastal communities to learn how different areas preserve fish and what we can all learn from each other. He plans to release his results in the spring.

You can contact Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge fish biologist Aaron Moses at 907-545-3620 or at aaron_moses@fws.gov.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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