BETHEL — The first king salmon are moving into the Kuskokwim River, and so far the only effort to catch the treasured and troubled species is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s test fishery.
That should change by mid-June. A federal manager on Wednesday said 32 villages including the hub of Bethel can take part in a federal community harvest program allowing up to 7,000 king, or chinook, salmon to be caught. Villages will need to limit the number of fishermen and monitor the catch to prevent them from exceeding their quota, federal managers said.
It’s a big increase from last year’s community harvest, with its cap of 1,000 chinook under a harvest program that few villages participated in, but still less than the number caught incidentally last year.
“We realize that early fishing is very important both for nutrition as well as tradition. This is an opportunity we are able to provide,” Neil Lalonde, manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, told a Kuskokwim salmon group in Bethel on Wednesday.
The special chinook harvest is expected to begin June 10 and run until June 30.
While some village residents are pleased, others say they remain worried for people who live upriver, far from the allowed fishing grounds for the community program.
This year, like last year, federal managers are taking control of the Kuskokwim and salmon-producing tributaries within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge when the kings come through.
On Thursday, federal managers are closing the entire refuge to chinook fishing, extending a closure that started May 21 at the mouth. But the community harvest for rural residents will be allowed through a separate action, managers said.
Almost no one participated in last year’s more limited community harvest. Just 82 kings were caught by four villages using their community permits, according to Brian McCaffery, the refuge’s supervisory wildlife biologist. Some tribal leaders said their village’s small share wasn’t worth the expense of fishing, or only a few fish were caught. Bethel was capped at 100, for instance, and didn’t participate after a tribal manager was called away for a family emergency.
This year should be different. Yukon Delta refuge managers set the 7,000-king cap allocated among villages based on their harvest history over a 20-year stretch ending in 2009. Tribal leaders had wanted a higher limit. But refuge managers consulted three designated members of the newly created Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Small villages will be capped at a few or a few dozen kings, but bigger ones will be allowed to try for hundreds.Villages from Chefornak to Kwethluk to Nikolai are eligible.
The tribal group members checked with villages and told federal managers to go ahead, Lalonde told the state-supported Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group on Wednesday.
“It’s putting smiles to my face,” Napaskiak tribal administrator Stephen Maxie said Wednesday when told his village’s estimated allocation was 387 kings, compared to 38 last year. The village, which had pushed for the community harvest, caught just 20-something last year, he said.
In the years before king fishing on the Kuskokwim was shut down, the average annual harvest for subsistence was 84,000 kings, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
Last year, 12,000 chinook were caught incidentally when village residents were allowed to target other species including whitefish, sockeye and chum salmon. State fish managers say enough kings — an estimated 124,000 — still made it to spawning grounds.
This year, they changed things up.
Rural residents will be allowed to use small-mesh nets, anchored in place, that aren’t designed for king salmon, but unlike last year, those setnets will be limited to three days a week, from Thursday morning to Sunday morning.
That should limit the incidental catch to maybe 8,000 kings, said Greg Roczicka, natural resources director for Bethel’s tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, and one of the designated consultants with the tribal fish commission.
The 7,000-fish community harvest within the refuge waters will be on top of that. Refuge managers are notifying tribal organizations about it this week and will ask those that want to participate to apply for a community permit.
Managers then will help them set up a program, Lalonde said. Fishing will be allowed with driftnets pulled by skiffs along the river. Communities will need to designate their fishermen. They will need to carry a village letter attesting to their role, he said.
Bethel, by far the biggest community on the Kuskokwim, will be allowed more than 2,000 king salmon under the proposed allocation.
As many as 120 fish camps still are used by Bethel residents along the Kuskokwim or right in town, Roczicka said. Those residents — who dry and smoke their fish — will get priority for the kings, he said.
Bethel’s tribe plans to check with fish camp operators and designated around 50 to fish for themselves and others, he said.
“We cannot take the chance on having everybody go fishing,” he said. Each active fish camp could get up to 15 kings to dry and smoke, he said. Other people in Bethel may get one to two fish, he said. Fishermen may need donations for gas money.
It’s important for fish to get on drying racks early, before summer rains and flies arrive and elevate the risk of meat spoiling, Roczicka said. Residents who freeze or jar fish can wait for sockeye, chum and silver salmon, he said.
Some villages above and below the refuge will be allowed to participate, but residents must head to the refuge to do so or find proxy fishermen. That upset some on Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, who said upriver communities need the fish too.
Barb Carlson, a group member from Sleetmute, said the community harvest program sounded great, but she was disappointed to hear “the upriver communities once again getting less.”
The state, which manages fishing on the Kuskokwim outside the refuge, doesn’t have a community harvest program. Only the Board of Fisheries can make decisions on allocation, managers said. The board is set to consider Yukon and Kuskokwim issues in January 2016.
If enough king salmon return this year, upriver villages may get a limited chance to fish for kings, maybe with smaller nets in state waters, said Aaron Poetter, Kuskokwim area management biologist for the state, participating in the salmon working group meeting on speaker phone from Anchorage.
Eventually, the whole river should be under one management structure run by state, federal and tribal authorities, said Mike Williams of Akiak, a salmon working group member and chairman of the new intertribal commission.
Meanwhile, the state has begun its Bethel test fishery, which is used to gauge the size and strength of salmon runs. So far, three kings have been caught as well as some sheefish and burbot.
The kings are given away, first to elders and others in need.