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Kuskokwim River fishermen are urging state fishery managers to open the upper river to silver salmon fishing

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NOAA
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Coho Salmon

Kuskokwim River fishermen are urging state fishery managers to open the upper river to silver salmon fishing. On Aug.17, for the first time ever, the state closed the entire Kuskokwim and most of its tributaries to nearly all subsistence fishing to conserve the species.

State data indicates that the run is on track to be the lowest ever and is unlikely to meet state escapement goals for silvers reaching their spawning grounds. River residents say that the low population in the upper river means their harvest would not have a large impact on the small run.

While lower river residents have been allowed to harvest silvers for weeks, the fish have just started arriving in the headwaters, and many residents there haven’t been able to harvest any silvers.

“It’s a human right to have food, man,” Denny Thomas told state fishery managers during the Aug. 17 salmon management teleconference. The river had just closed to silver fishing that morning. Thomas lives in Crooked Creek on the upper Kuskokwim.

“A lot of our protein and the protein people eat in this village nowadays is silvers. You don’t get enough of the others [salmon species]. And we need to be able to get at least some that we can fillet and freeze,” Thomas said.

The state announced the river-wide closure two days before it took effect. Thomas and other residents said that didn’t give residents enough time to prepare.

The closure restricts more than just silver salmon fishing. It bans gillnets in the Kuskokwim and most tributaries, severely limiting fishermen’s ability to harvest other species, like whitefish.

The month-long closure ends on Sept. 15. McGrath resident Kevin Whitworth said that by then, the silvers in the headwaters won’t be edible.

“I call them Jell-O fish. They’re good for dog food and that’s it,” he said.

Whitworth criticized state managers for not restricting the silver fishery earlier in a more equitable way. He said that a total closure at this point in the season placed a disproportionate burden on upper river residents.

In the lower and middle river, many residents drifted for silvers over the weekend. They knew a closure could be coming. Callers reported various fishermen harvesting around 30 silvers apiece in communities along the lower waters.

Far upriver in Nicolai, where silvers haven’t been harvested yet, resident Dan Esai found that news hard to hear.

“It’s a pretty rough year for us headwater folks. Not one single family has met their needs, and here we hear about people drifting before the closure. So you can imagine what my people feel,” Esai said.

He asked to be able to soak a gillnet to harvest whitefish.

The Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group passed recommendations to loosen the fishing restrictions. This is a group of river residents that advises state fishery managers. The group recommended that the river open full-time in the upper waters above Aniak, and open to 4-inch mesh gillnets three days per week in the lower waters. But state fishery manager Nick Smith said that the state would not be able to limit the mesh size in the river.

Group members acknowledged that the recommendations prioritized harvests over escapement. However, members also said that the low population along the upper river meant that any silver harvest would not have a significant impact on the run.
Smith countered that any harvest added up, and that every silver needs to get to the spawning grounds.

State data estimates that upper river communities from Aniak to the headwaters harvested 2,689 silvers in 2021. Average harvest between 2010 and 2021 in these waters was 6,722 silvers, and every year between 2010 and 2020 had a larger annual harvest than 2021, according to Smith.

Last year was the lowest silver run on record, and this year is on track to fall far lower. Data from the state-run Bethel Test Fishery shows the run falling 63% below the past 13-year average from 2008-2021.

Next week, the state will stop collecting data on the number of silvers entering the Kusokwim. The seasonal funding for both the Bethel Test Fishery and the lower river sonar will end. State officials are applying to extend those projects deeper into the season next year.

Because of the low run, federal managers are not taking control of the lower river fishery, which could have allowed subsistence openings for local residents.