Rural communities along the Kuskokwim River are actively pushing for fishing restrictions aimed at protecting king salmon, with decisions made this week set to significantly affect subsistence fishing on the river.
The low number of king salmon returning to the river continues to be a serious concern for both villages and State of Alaska fishery managers.
The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group is recommending that the state close the river to king salmon fishing until the in-season strength of the run can be measured -- a call with which state and federal fishery managers agree.
The working group is meeting in Anchorage this week along with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and expects to firm up restrictions by Friday.
The group petitioned that dip net gear be allowed on the river and for the state to restrict net lengths in an effort to allow access to fish other than kings during severe restrictions. The state adopted both proposals last week.
“It won't be a free-for-all, 'Everybody go get fish,' but (we) worked out some solutions to where people will have an opportunity to get fresh fish,” said the working group's co-chair, Beverly Hoffman.
But the question of who should be allowed to fish is also being discussed. The Napaskiak Tribal Council has asked the Federal Subsistence Board to limit king salmon harvest on the river to qualified subsistence users, those who live off the fish and reside in qualifying areas.
“Life is hard in rural Alaska, where we depend on what we catch and what we prepare during summer months to feed and keep our families fed,” said Napaskiak Tribal Council Administrator Stephen Maxie.
The idea is to restrict Alaskans from urban areas from fishing the river for kings. The federal government cannot restrict fishing based on ethnicity.
“The only way we can limit access is based on residency, in rural versus urban,” said Gene Peltola Jr. with the Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Subsistence Management.
Hoffman predicts another decade of tough management decisions on the Kuskokwim River.
“There are going to be people not happy," Hoffman said. "I'm hoping that wiser minds will prevail."
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Subsistence Regional Advisory Council will hold a meeting and public hearing in Bethel next week to discuss restricting who can fish for kings on the Kuskokwim River.
In Anchorage, the state is refining its management strategy for the Kuskokwim River, which it says may be finalized as early as the end of the week.