State opens Kuskokwim River commercial fishing to 1 person

silver salmon
Fresh-caught silver salmon is kept cold at FAR West Fish & Farm in Bethel on Aug. 16, 2023. (Courtesy Julie McWilliams)

Coming just days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned management of the Kuskokwim River to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the state has announced eight separate commercial openers in August.

These opportunities are only available to individuals registered as catcher/sellers. On the Kuskokwim, that’s only one person: Fran Reich.

“I’ve been a commercial fisherman for almost 50 years on the river,” Reich said.

Drifting down the river near Bethel, snaring silver salmon in his 300-foot gillnet on the first fishing opener Wednesday, Reich said that his first set of the day was going well.

“The way the net is acting and how hard it’s pulling. It means that we probably have 40 or 50 fish in the net,” Reich said.

Reich has been the sole catcher/seller on the river for around a decade. He said that he’s retired, but that fishing is just in his blood. He runs a small company called FAR West Fish & Farm out of his home in Bethel.

Reich got in early with commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim, trading a piece of land he owned in Bethel to the now defunct Kuskokwim Fishermen’s Cooperative for the necessary permit in 1978.

“It was kind of unique to trade land for the right to fish,” Reich said.

Now, with the exception of Reich, commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim River is virtually nonexistent. But according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it wasn’t always this way.

The 1980s saw annual commercial king salmon harvests averaging 70,000 fish along the Kuskokwim and its coastal districts. As for the silver salmon that Reich is busy out on the river catching, average annual harvests in the 1990s topped half a million fish.

These days, things are a little more laid-back. Outside of the occasional larger order from a buyer like Alaska Commercial Company, Reich said that he mostly deals with local clientele himself.

“Many of them are Bethel people who don’t have access to boats. Many of them are new to town,” Reich said. “So it’s oftentimes your small sales: a couple of fish here, four or five fish there.”

After nearly 50 years in the game, Reich said that he is enjoying the opportunity to get out on the water, even if he’s the only one out there doing it commercially.

“You always hope that at some point the way capitalism operates, the way the regulatory climate is, at some point it’ll make sense,” Reich said. “But in the meantime, the workouts you get and just the joy of harvesting fish, it all makes sense to me.”

Reich said he isn’t sure how much he’ll be out on the river during the August commercial openers, but that he’s ready and willing to fulfill any orders that come his way.

The remaining commercial openers are taking place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., on even-numbered days through Aug. 30.

Gillnets are restricted to 6-inch or less mesh and may not exceed 45 meshes in depth and 300 feet in length. The openers apply to Subdistrict 1-A, stretching from Bethel upriver to Bogus Creek.

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