Yukon River Commercial Dipnet Fishery – Import to the Kuskokwim?
The new chum salmon commercial dipnet fishery on the lower Yukon River this summer was a success! Should the idea be imported to the Kuskokwim?
The regulation change allowing commercial use of dipnets in the lower Yukon River was prompted by multiple years of big chum runs coupled with low king runs. The leadership at Kwik’pak Fisheries sought the regulation change to provide local residents an opportunity to earn some cash from the abundant chum while avoiding harm to kings. Experimental gear testing in 2012 showed dipnets to be a workable alternative. New regulations also allow use of beach seines and shallow 5½ inch gillnets, but most fisherman chose dipnets. Kwik’pak helped outfit them with the new gear.
Dipnets are not an efficient gear for catching a lot of salmon, but the exceptionally large run of 2.7 million Yukon summer chum allowed dipnetters to catch nearly 190,000 of the fish. The catch weighed in at over a million pounds. The low efficiency of the gear allowed for 15 consecutive days of commercial openings in District Y1 (18 June-2 July), and 17 days in District Y2 (21 June-7 July). Most of the daily openings lasted 12 hours. Up to 164 permit holders participated (Y1 and Y2 combined), and they earned an average of seven to ten thousand dollars each. About 900 kings were caught and release alive.
The Kuskokwim River is in a similar position to the Yukon with low king runs inhibiting commercial harvest of abundant chum salmon. The priority for salmon management is to get enough salmon to spawn, or “escape” harvest, each year to ensure healthy future returns that foster sustainable subsistence and commercial fisheries. Achieving this priority for king salmon has been challenging in recent years, but not for chum.
Chum escapements are monitored in several tributary streams feeding into the Kuskokwim River. However, Kogrukluk River, in the upper Holitna basin, is the only stream with a formal “escapement goal”, so Kogrukluk is the only location were managers can formally say whether escapements have been adequate; i.e., within the escapement goal range. By default, managers use Kogrukluk River as an annual index of whether chum escapements were adequate for the entire Kuskowkim drainage.
In recent years, chum escapements have been more than adequate at Kogrukluk River. Most other monitored streams show a pattern similar to Kogrukluk of average to above average chum escapements. This implies that more chums could have been harvested in these years, but they were not because the commercial fishery was closed during the early part of the chum run to protect kings. Initiating a dipnet commercial fishery in the Kuskokwim during June, similar to what was done in the Yukon, may be a way to harvest some of those chum while continuing protect kings.
There are those who say it is not worth it, and for some perhaps it is not. Dipnetting is tough work. It is not an efficient way to harvest fish and the money to be earned is not a lot compared to what it takes to support a family. Plus it may only be feasible in years with exceptionally high chum salmon abundance. Still, for youth with strong backs and few other employment options it could be a welcomed opportunity to earn a little money and to connect to the river. Each individual needs to decide for themselves whether it is worth it for their specific circumstances. But first regulators need to provide the opportunity by importing this Yukon idea into the Kuskokwim.
Whatever your views, let your voice be heard. Talk to the managers at Fish and Game, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and your representatives on the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group. But also talk to the leadership at AVCP and village Tribal Councils who can and should serve as your advocates at fisheries forums. Talk too to the board members of Coastal Villages Region Fund and the owners of Kuskokwim Seafood’s because their input into the discussion is critical.
Change is inevitable. For a culture to survive it needs to adapt to that change. Having a diversity of options helps to facilitate adaptation.
For more information about the Yukon dipnet fishery see the Delta Discovery July 10 issue and the KYUK news piece interviewing some of fishermen (http://kyuk.org/unprecedented-restrictions-change-lower-yukon-fishing-culture/). There is even a YouTube video where you can see how it is done (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvEKhSOFfH8).