by the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge
Do you remember the last time king (Chinook) salmon runs were strong on the Kuskokwim river? Since at least 2010, we have not seen numbers or sizes of king salmon as we used to on our waters. Some fishermen and women say it has been even longer – maybe 30 or 40 years – since our king salmon runs have been strong and plentiful from our river’s mouth to its headwaters.
This year, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is forecasting that between 94,000 to 155,000 king salmon could return to the Kuskokwim – about half of the number of fish that returned in times of abundance. The truth is that this forecast is uncertain, and we will not know how strong or poor the run is until after the fishing season has finished.
These types of uncertainties have caused many difficulties for our fishing families, like in filling our smokehouses for the winter and bringing our families to fish camp to teach our children our culture. The past decade of low king salmon returns and conservation closures has not been an easy time for anyone on our river.
However, we know that the action we take today as one Kuskokwim fishing community will have an everlasting impact on king salmon tomorrow. Do we want our children and grandchildren to live with weak and uncertain king salmon runs, or do we want them to experience abundance and be able to harvest, dry, and taste king salmon like we used to?
This year, we need to fish with future generations of Kuskokwim communities in mind because the time to protect king salmon and our fishing ways of life is now. This is the mindset that the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge are bringing to Federal fisheries management this season.
As collaborative management partners, KRITFC and the Refuge are working together to protect Kuskokwim king salmon and make sure Tribal and rural subsistence fishermen and women will be able to fish for them. Because we are not sure how many king salmon will return to the river this year, KRITFC and Refuge managers will be precautionary and conservative. This means we are concerned there might not be enough fish to meet both our subsistence needs and our spawner escapement goals, and we will put king salmon conservation closures in place until we have a clearer picture of this year’s run.
On May 7, 2021, the Refuge Manager announced a Federal fisheries closure to all salmon using gillnets beginning June 1 to protect king salmon. This closure applies to the Federal waters of the Kuskokwim (from the mouth to Aniak), as well as salmon-spawning tributaries.
The Refuge Manager also announced set and drift gillnet fishing opportunities for Federally qualified subsistence users during this closure. These dates were chosen in consultation with the KRITFC Executive Council representatives and In-Season Managers, and they are very similar to subsistence harvest opportunity dates in recent years:
•June 2 from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (6-inch or smaller set gillnet)
•June 5 from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (6-inch or smaller set gillnet)
•June 9 from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (6-inch or smaller set gillnet)
•June 12 from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (6-inch or smaller set or drift gillnet)
•June 15 from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (6-inch or smaller set or drift gillnet)
•More fishing opportunities may be announced later in the season.
During the Federal closure, fishermen and women are still able to use non-gillnet gear to harvest other salmon species. This means you can use dipnets, beach seines, fish wheels with a live release box, and/or rod and reel to harvest non-king salmon species. If you catch a king salmon using one of these gear types, it must be returned to the water alive.
We on the Kuskokwim are made of fish, and we never want to live in a world without our fish. This summer, we hope you can catch a big king salmon to share with your Elders, and we also hope you think of your great-grandchild sharing a big king with their family as we work together to conserve our salmon.
For the full Federal fisheries closure information, please visit https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/3-KS-01-21_Final_5.7.2021.pdf. Please keep up with 2021 fishing information from KRITFC and the Refuge this fishing season by visiting our Facebook pages (@KuskoSalmon and @YukonDeltaRefuge) and websites (http://www.kuskosalmon.org and https://www.fws.gov/refuge/yukon_delta/).