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Kuskokwim King Salmon Subsistence Closure Extended

June 16, 2012|by Rhonda McBride

Anchorage, AK. — “Empty fish racks, after empty fish racks,” said Bev Hoffman of Bethel, describing a trip Friday up the Kuskokwim River, which is lined with family fish camps.  

In most years by this time, those racks and smokehouses are filling up with king or chinook salmon, the main staple of the subsistence diet in Southwest Alaska. 

Hoffman is co-chair of the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, which is mostly made up of subsistence and commercial fishermen representing communities up and down the wide, muddy river.

After a three-and-a-half hour meeting on Friday, state and federal fishery managers made a decision that won’t change the picture for Hoffman for at least five more days.

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That’s how long they extended a seven-day subsistence closure that was to expire midnight Saturday.  

Hoffman said managers rejected a compromise proposal from the working group to allow a short period of subsistence fishing and then call another closure. 

But managers stood their ground, based on the results of the Bethel test fishery.  Normally by this time of the season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s drift netters haul in an abundance of salmon. This season, though, it’s a different story. Test fishery nets have been cast at every high tide since June 1, but so far only six salmon have been caught. 

“We wanted an opportunity, maybe not to get the fish on the racks, but to get out and get some fish on the table, some fresh fish,” said Hoffman. “We were all very disappointed. We would have liked to have had a window of opportunity.”  

Biologists want more time to watch the trends. In recent days, more chinooks have moved into the main stem of the river, so they’re hoping the run timing is late.  

“It’s too early to say with certainty,” said John Linderman, the  ADFG regional supervisor for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim fisheries. “It makes it very difficult for managers and researchers to assess the run.” 

But even if the run is late, fish numbers are likely to be below what was forecast for the season, which was poor to begin with. Subsistence restrictions were imposed last year and despite that, the number of fish that escaped upriver to spawn did not meet the department’s goals.  

“It’s going to be difficult and require sacrifices,” Linderman said.

This year, Fish and Game took an unprecedented step in imposing rolling closures on the Kuskokwim. Under the current restrictions, the river is divided into five sections and the 12-day closure is staggered.  

Historically, the Kuskokwim River has been one of the largest producers of king salmon in the state, with most of the harvest used for subsistence. With gas prices in some villages well above $6 a gallon and food prices almost twice as high as in Anchorage, people have become even more dependent on wild salmon runs to sustain them.  

“There’s a lot of unhappy people,” said Bev Hoffman. “But we’ve survived hardships before, and we’ll survive this hardship. Ultimately it’s the salmon we’ve got to save too.”  

Many in the region believe it’s unfair that the burden of conservation has fallen on their shoulders. Some blame fisheries out in the ocean that target other species but take too many salmon. Climate change could also be a factor in the low numbers of chinook. 

Hoffman is hoping that the run is not as dismal as it seems, that fish are milling around at the mouth of the river waiting to begin their journey to the spawning grounds. 

“It’s cold out there,” said Hoffman. “There’s ice out there. We’re really hoping that the fish are out there waiting for things to warm up.”  

If not, the 2012  Kuskokwim king salmon run could go down as one of the worst on record. 

(Editor's note: Photo of Smoked Salmon Strips Courtesy of Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation) 


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