Kwethluk tribe seeks to loosen some Kuskokwim set net restrictions

Veronica Elford helps set a net in Naknek in 2015. (Photo by Hannah Colton)

The Organized Village of Kwethluk wants to liberalize set net regulations on the Kuskokwim River when king salmon conservation restrictions are imposed. The tribe has submitted a proposal to the Board of Fish to allow set nets of 6-inch or less mesh to be used anywhere in the river during times of king salmon conservation.

Under current regulation, state managers can allow 4-inch or smaller set gillnet openings during these times. These 4-inch or smaller set net opportunities have been provided most recently during the early season “front-end” closure that occurs before June 12. The front-end gillnet closure is intended to allow salmon to distribute throughout the Kuskokwim drainage so that all subsistence users can have equitable harvest opportunities. The early portion of the king salmon run is made up of predominantly headwaters-bound king salmon, which have the furthest distance to travel.

During this front-end drift net closure, state managers can schedule weekly set net openings. Currently, set nets are limited to 4-inch or smaller mesh and cannot extend more than 100 feet from the river’s usual high water mark. The set net openings allow subsistence users to harvest fish other than salmon, such as whitefish and sheefish, before the salmon fishery opens.

The Kwethluk tribe wants to change the set net mesh restrictions from 4 to 6 inches, and remove restrictions on where in the river the net can be placed. In its proposal, the tribe writes that that the 6-inch or smaller mesh could allow for salmon harvest other than kings early in the season during times of conservation. However, king salmon are the most abundant salmon in the river during the early season closure.

Many people along the Kuskokwim refer to the 4-inch mesh nets as “killer nets,” saying that the salmons’ mouths get caught in the small mesh, and their bodies sink when the net is pulled from the water. Other subsistence users fear that the set nets are taking too many whitefish from the river.

The Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group voted to support the proposal, and the Board of Fish is scheduled to take up the matter during its meeting in Anchorage on March 8-11, 2020. To weigh in, you can submit written comments to the Board of Fish on the proposal until Feb. 21, 2020.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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