Working group recommends closing salmon fishing
If action isn't taken now, the future of king salmon fishing is in a dire situation.
Those are the words of Travis Ellison, Kuskokwim Area Management Biologist for Alaska State Fish and Game. Three out of the past four years have set records for the lowest runs seen since 1976.
"If we don't cut back on subsistence and we don't make our escapement goals, it will get pretty dire," he said. "The one thing for sure is if we don't meet our goals this problem can just get worse and worse."
Preliminary plans recommended this month by the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group are focused on conservation. Group members voted on closing king salmon sport fishing, closing tributary subsistence fishing from June 1 to July 25, managing or delaying the commercial fishery to ensure there is no significant impact on the salmon run as a result of incidental harvest, restricting fishers to six-inch or less mesh-sized nets once chum and sockeye are abundant and providing more fishing opportunity for the upper river. The group also voted to give a short period of opportunity to allow people to have the "first taste of the season."
If there is an adequate abundance to achieve escapement goals, which the group set to an ambitious 85,000 this year, the group recommends reducing closures. However, if there doesn't appear to be an adequate abundance to reach escapement goals, the group recommends cancelling scheduled fishing periods altogether.
Representatives of the working group noted that there is lots more conversation to be had and that these plans are "up in the air."
For people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the reduction of subsistence fishing can be hard to swallow. The conflict between the Alaskan Native way of life and the state Fish and Game restrictions came to a head in 2012, when locals took matters into their own hands and revolted. Sixty-one fishermen, all Alaska Natives, were charged with defying the closure.
Eventually, in court, the numbers prevailed against the culture. While the defendants argued that it was their religious right to fish, the judge said that the survival of the kings takes precedence.
In a seven-page opinion, the judge wrote at the time, "The question remains, is there a compelling reason for the limitations placed by the state on the subsistence taking of chinook salmon? The court finds that there is. This finding is based on the testimony of the research biologists who testified at length and in detail that the chinook salmon run was perilously small. The expressed concern was, 'is this the year we wipe out the run?' "
It's a concern still held by biologists and stakeholders to this day.
"I don't think there's a person who was born and raised on this river who doesn't feel sad about this situation," said Beverly Hoffman, an Alaskan Native who is part of the management working group. "We all want our taste of kings and hopefully we'll be able to have that, but for a while we're just going to have to tighten our belts, so to speak, and tough this out and know we're doing this as the right thing."
Hoffman noted that the times have changed. There are more people, bigger boats and bigger nets. People have to be in touch with the reality that the resources aren't as abundant as they used to be, she said.
"I think what's hard for people is they fought for so long against commercial and bycatch and high seas fishing, and it was in-river people who had to carry the burden of conservation. They wanted change on the high seas and it happened so slowly," she said. "Now it is what it is and we have to work together to right the wrong."
Still, no matter how much Hoffman campaigns, she says there is no convincing some people.
"I do think that there are a percentage of people who still believe it's their right and they're going to fish until the fish are gone. And I don't know how to reach these people," she said.
Ellison said that if subsistence fishing in the Kuskokwim is reduced, and if the ocean and climate cooperate, they could possibly see the salmon population climb back up to healthy numbers.
Hoffman lamented that people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim have to bear the burden of conservation, but reasoned that it was for the best.
"It's the first salmon of the year that comes up, it just melts in your mouth, and that's what you have looked forward to every year," Hoffman said. "But the word for all fish and all salmon is 'naqa.' It's food. And we just have to appreciate the other fish – white fish and sheefish and chum – and know we're doing our part to bring back the kings the way it used to be. And can we do it? Only time will tell."