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Episode 63: Return of the Kings

By KTVA Alaska 6:46 PM July 10, 2016

The Alaska passion for salmon is almost primal, perhaps more so in Alaska Native communities where they’ve been a main part of the diet for time immemorial.

In recent years, when king salmon returned in record low numbers on the Kuskokwim River, state and federal fishery managers responded with some of the harshest restrictions ever experienced on the river. The prime directive: to save the kings.

The problem was the kings also run at the same time as the chums and the reds, so the restrictions kept fishermen from going after those, as well as several other species of fresh water fish.

There were protest fisheries, full of anger and frustration, as well as a renewed call for tribal management of the river.

This season, the waters are calmer. The king salmon run has improved enough to allow some fishing opportunities. It seems families are getting enough fish to put up for winter — and managers and fishers seem to be getting along better.

But this could well be a case where crisis has also been an opportunity, where ways have been found to adapt fishing restrictions to protect the dietary, cultural and spiritual needs of the people. And for the first time in years, the push for more tribal control has gained some traction.

Some of the highlights of this week’s program:

  • We retrace our coverage in 2014, when we reported on the magnitude of the king crisis of the Kuskokwim region. Tim Andrew, the natural resources director for the Association of Village Council Presidents, took us out on the river to see the “ghost” fish camps, where wooden drying racks would normally be heavy with fish.  This year, with Andrew as our guide, we returned to some of those same fish camps — including one near Napaskiak, where families this season celebrated the return of the kings.
  • We look at the push for tribal management of Kuskokwim fisheries. For the last few years, there have been a lot of cooks in the kitchen, especially after tribes successfully petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take over some of the management of kings. Now USFWS is working with the tribes and the state towards a bigger tribal voice in management decisions.
  • The king salmon crisis was felt, not just on the Kuskokwim, but across our state. Our guests this week, Dr. Katie Howard and Ed Jones with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, share some of their groundbreaking research.

There’s a lot packed into this week’s show, yet I also have the feeling that we skimmed the surface of so many important issues. I want to give special thanks to Tim Andrew and Perry Barr of Bethel for their help in getting us out on the Kuskokwim River to visit with families at fish camp. Barr also cooked us a very delicious king salmon on the grill, mouthwatering and satisfying to the soul.

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