Test fisheries on the Kuskokwim River show king salmon numbers ahead of last year’s run.
But these early fish counts don’t ease anxiety, nor have they allowed for the traditional subsistence harvest of king salmon — the staple of the diet for thousands of families with fish camps up and down the river.
At the Kuskokwim River Management Working Group Meeting on Tuesday, tensions grew. Bethel Public Radio station KYUK reported some members of the group, which serves as an advisory board for state and federal fishery managers, are worried about violence on the river as fears about putting enough food away for winter grow.
Fishery managers don’t want to take chances on this season’s king run, which last year appeared strong enough to allow subsistence fishing. The season fizzled out, though, and ended with the lowest run on record.
Escapement, which is the number of salmon needed to make it home to their spawning beds, was far short of what’s needed to protect future runs. Last season, only 47,000 kings made it to the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim, well below the minimum threshold of 65,000 fish.
Along with those dismal numbers came a major shift in fisheries management on the Kuskokwim.
In an unusual move, the federal government has stepped in to oversee the king salmon subsistence fishery in waters adjacent to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge; about a 200-mile stretch of river between Aniak and the mouth of the Kuskokwim. It imposed a ban on fishing for kings that’s been in effect since May 20.
The state now finds itself taking a backseat in managing the fishery. It’s definitely not business as usual, but these are not normal times.
The Kuskokwim has long been the largest subsistence king salmon fishery in the state, with runs averaging about 240,000 fish. From 2009-2013, the run dwindled to an average of 130,000 kings. The harvests saw a corresponding drop from an average of more than 70,000 kings to a low of 24,000 fish in 2012.
As boaters ply the silty waters of the Kuskokwim these days, they see only the greenery of the riverbanks. The bright flashes of red from hanging fish, which usually add color to the season, are a rare sight. The empty fish racks and smokehouses have a ghostly air.
It was this fear that prompted the tribal government of Napaskiak, a small community downriver of Bethel, to initiate the management change.
Earlier this year, Napaskiak asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and protect their subsistence rights under ANILCA.
The end result was an unprecedented management regime on the Kuskokwim with a rural priority – something the state Constitution does not allow.
Myron Naneng, who is head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, the largest tribal organization in the region, welcomes federal oversight.
“The state has mismanaged,” Naneng said. “You’ve heard the term, ‘The state of Alaska are the best managers of the fisheries in the world.’ If they were the best managers of the fisheries in the world, why are we in this situation today?”
Naneng believes the state has failed, at all levels of government, to make subsistence a priority. He said the state has always been more focused on commercial and sports fishing.
“I would say the state’s record in that regard is contrary to that perspective,” said John Linderman, who is the department’s regional supervisor for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Region.
“I would say, given the importance of that subsistence fishery, given its size in just the way of sheer numbers and harvest, it’s an aspect the state has always focused on,” Linderman said.
If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that the problem is complicated.
Most researchers believe there are a combination of factors contributing to the failed runs.
While king salmon runs on the Kuskokwim have a pattern of cycling up and down, they’ve never hit such extreme lows as they have in recent years.
Kuskokwim kings typically spend five to seven years out in ocean waters before migrating back to their natal streams to lay and fertilize their eggs. Never before have they faced so many challenges, from changes in ocean temperatures to being caught incidentally by trawlers targeting other species like pollock.
There are also growing number of people on the river who have come to depend on the king salmon harvest, adding more pressures to the stock.
In the end, it’s those who need the salmon the most who bear the brunt of saving them.
Naneng said the sacrifice goes beyond putting food on the table: It speaks to the heart of Alaska Native culture.
“You work together as a whole family to put that fish away for winter. You teach your children how to cut fish,” Naneng said. “These things are intertwined with the spirituality of working together as a family, as a unit.”
“If you take away the ability and the opportunities for people to harvest food, which is work in itself, and you take that away from people who have relied on it for centuries, then you have other social problems,” said Naneng, who believes food stamps and other forms of aid are no substitute and lead to a culture of dependency.
CULTURAL AND SOCIAL FISHERY
Under the new federal management program, a “cultural and social” fishery is planned sometime this season. A thousand fish will be allocated to 32 Kuskokwim communities. The fishery will be limited to federally qualified subsistence users who live in those designated communities and have a history of relying on the salmon for subsistence.
Although this fishery won’t even meet a tiny fraction of the need, with some villages getting an allocation of only 12 salmon, some see it as a step in the right direction.
Sky Starkey, an attorney who has worked for AVCP on developing tribal issues, believes the cultural fishery is more in line with Native traditions.
“The allocation is on a community basis, not allocated on an individual basis,” Starkey said. “The amount reflects the traditional pattern of community harvesting, with sharing the opportunity.”
“I think that’s a remarkable achievement,” said Starkey, who noted the federal cultural fishery is very similar to a plan some tribal leaders had floated earlier this year in anticipation of severe king salmon restrictions.
Still, Starkey said the state’s dual management system is not the way to manage the fishery.
The system arose in 1999, after the Legislature failed to pass a constitutional amendment to allow a rural priority for subsistence fishing.
“The whole dual management system, without tribal input, is just ridiculous,” said Starkey, who pointed out that a large stretch of the Kuskokwim, upriver from Aniak, remains under state management.
In order to take part in the federal cultural fishery, communities above Aniak, like Sleetmute and Stony River, will not be able to fish in waters nearby, but have to spend money to travel to federal waters below Aniak.
Still, Starkey and other advocates for tribal government are hopeful that federal management this season will open the door to intertribal fishery commissions on the Yukon and Kuskokwim River, similar to those in Washington State, where the tribes take part in the management decisions.
“If the tribes unite on the Kuskokwim drainage, and if they start to develop their capacity in science and traditional knowledge, they will simply be a force that cannot be ignored,” Starkey said. “The greatest step to take is one of unity.”
PRESSURE TO FISH
But will strife over the shortage of fish undermine those efforts?
Tribal leaders are still divided on whether they support the federal management plan. Two years ago, a number of communities defied state law and fished for kings, and some haven’t ruled out acts of civil disobedience this season.
According to KYUK, at Tuesday’s working group meeting, federal manager Robert Sundown warned that the federal government has the resources to bring in hundreds of game wardens to enforce the ban on fishing for kings.
At a two-day conference held last week by the Yupiit Nation, an organization of tribal activists which has long advocated for tribal co-management of the region’s fisheries, there was sharp debate about whether more kings could be harvested for subsistence.
Greg Roczicka, the natural resources director for the Bethel tribal government, the Orutsararmuit Native Council, said his organization will be responsible for managing Bethel’s cultural fishery allocation of 100 kings — not enough to share in a community of more than 5,000 people.
“Once you apply logic, it’s a difficult task,” said Roczicka, who said he’s committed to making the cultural fishery as meaningful as possible.
“In Bethel, we will not attempt to make this a subsistence ration or a lottery,” Roczicka said.
He said the loss of the kings is hardest on the elders, who grew up with the belief that you have to show the creator, Ellam Yua, that there is a need for the salmon by harvesting them. Otherwise, he said, they will go away.
In the meantime, as the chums and the red salmon begin to outnumber the kings — a sign that the peak of the king run may have passed — fishermen are anxious to throw their gill nets with 6-inch mesh in the water. They’ve been restricted to 4-inch mesh to avoid catching kings.
Also on Thursday, fishermen will be able to use dipnets to catch salmon for the first time ever. Earlier this year, the State Board of Fisheries made the gear change to allow more opportunity for harvesting chums and reds. The dipnets, which are also included in the federal management plan, allow the release of live kings back into the water. In past seasons, fishermen missed out on harvesting reds and chums because the only legal gear available to them were gill nets, which have the potential to snag salmon.
Federal managers are considering allowing the 6-inch mesh nets back in the water soon, but are holding off until they see more test fish numbers.
Managers have said that even a short opening with 6-inch gear, given the fishing power of the subsistence fleet, could prevent tens of thousands of kings from returning to their spawning grounds and undermine all the sacrifice subsistence users have made so far this season.
Federal management of the Kuskokwim subsistence king fishery is only temporary. It’s set to expire on July 18 and revert back to state management for the rest of the season.
But regardless of who calls the shots in the fishery, the state or the feds, a shortage of salmon is guaranteed to bring widespread unhappiness on the Kuskokwim.