by Mary Peltola
The 2019 Kuskokwim chinook run was the best it has been in the last ten years. Many people attribute this year’s return to the efforts of the last five summers to ensure better escapement numbers and quality. Many fishermen reported catching a higher number of chinooks, and that most of their catches were small males.
Although people noticed that most kings were smaller, and the amount we put away for this winter is about half the amount of our historic use, we are thankful and happy to see a healthier return. There is no greater joy than boating along a vibrant river, seeing drying racks with red hanging salmon and the smokehouses producing delicious smelling smoke. A river where three (or four) generations are helping their families preserve fish for the year ahead.
For folks who held off fishing until the reds and chums arrived, the Kuskokwim had another year of abundant red salmon. The chum run was on the late side, and the red salmon made up for the lack of chums.
This season there were two new in-season managers; Megan Leary, from Napaimute, and Jacki Cleveland, from Quinhagak. James Charles, from Tuntutuliak, who has been with the Commission since 2015, was a part of the KRITFC’s steering committee, and in wildlife management for decades, was unanimously appointed to serve as the Commission’s first Elder Advisor.
The Elder Advisor will participate in all KRITFC meetings including the in-season management consultations. James Nicori, from Kwethluk, and Robert Lekander, from Bethel, continued to serve as in-season managers. Each of these positions is elected by all the commissioners present at the Annual Meeting. The election of each in-season manager by all the commissioners along the river is a reflection of the commission’s commitment to making decisions in the best interest of the whole river and chinook stock’s long term health.
I continue to take pride in the respect and civility shown at fish meetings, which are naturally emotional and stressful meetings. The link people along the Kuskokwim have to our ancestor’s understanding of our connection to this environment and one another is strong thanks entirely to the traditional knowledge shared by our elders.
In April 2019, the Federal Subsistence Board directed the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to assume management of the chinook run from June 1st through July 1st. This differed from previous years during which the Federal Subsistence Board directed the refuge manager to choose the date when Federal management of the Chinook run would begin. For example, between 2015 through 2018, Federal management began on June 12th as decided by the acting refuge manager.
The “Front End Closure”, which the State of Alaska Board of Fish created to allow headwater’s chinook passage in the lower river, began on May 28th (the latest beginning date yet), and lasted through June 11th (a hard date set in state regulations by the Board of Fish).
There was confusion about fishing times and permissible gear types at the beginning of the season as many fishermen were not aware of the management changes, and different and changing restrictions in gear size and length. The KRITFC addressed and resolved this confusion by helping to clarify state and federal announcements about fishing times and gear types though a weekly public teleconference.
This was the second year the KRITFC and FWS hosted a Monday morning river-wide teleconference. As in past years, anyone can call into this teleconference, toll-free, to listen and participate in fishing updates and management decisions. This continues to be a good opportunity for people to ask questions about regulations and share their observations, predictions and concerns with managers and others. Most people agreed that the use of 6” gill nets rather than 4” gill nets for salmon fishing was a positive change.
Earlier this year, the Governor appointed a new Commissioner of Fish and Game, Doug Vincent-Lang, and this summer, the Commission continued working with ADF&G under the new Commissioner. The Commission remains hopeful that ADF&G will continue to engage in collaborative management with all Kuskokwim fishermen in years to come.
This summer, ADF&G, with the agreement of the FWS, opened fishing for reds and chums with 6” gear on June 26th, earlier than it had during the past five years. While the Commission had concerns that this early unrestricted opening would compromise the ability of large female Chinook to reach their spawning grounds, endangering the quality of escapement, many fishing families were happy and relieved to have unrestricted fishing in Federal waters.
This year KRITFC will continue to build and implement a stock assessment program on the Kuskokwim River. Local fish technicians were hired to run the Takotna River weir, an important headwater assessment project; the only project in the upper Kuskokwim River with a long-term data set.
Installation of the weir took place in mid-June and started counting passing fish by July 1. August 10th was the last day of operation. KRITFC assessment biologist staff, Kevin Whitworth, has also been working on building a partnership at the Kwethluk River and helped form a proposal to get funding for the project through 2020-2023.
The weather across Alaska, and on the Kuskokwim, is now full of surprises. In June and July, sunny and hot conditions, day after day, melted snow and ice at the headwaters providing high water levels with a lot of driftwood. The uncommonly hot days in July caused the lower river to have water temperatures at 70 degrees and above, which caused an unknown number of salmon go into cardiac arrest. With the tundra fires and smoke-filled days, this was a summer like no other.
All in all, it was another beautiful summer on the Kuskokwim, and we are all so thankful for the bounty God provides.
Mary Peltola is the Executive Director for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.