Two chum salmon show the distinctive stripes that emerge after they enter freshwater to spawn. Chum salmon are important to the diets of Indigenous residents of Western Alaska. This year's run in the Kuskokwim River was better than those of the past two years, but scarcities remain a problem. (Photo provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
In Western Alaska’s Kuskokwim River, site of devastating salmon crashes and federal-state management disputes in recent years, fish returns showed some positive glimmers this year, according to preliminary summaries released by a Tribal organization and by the state.
For chum salmon, long a mainstay in local people’s diets, returns were better this year than last year and better than the record-low conditions of 2021, preliminary numbers show. But the struggles continue, said Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“I wouldn’t say they’re improving because we’re coming off some of the worst chum salmon runs the Kuskokwim ever had,” said Whitworth, whose organization works with the federal government to manage the river’s fisheries. “We’re basically coming off of the bottom of the barrel.”
According to sonar counts at Bethel, near the Bering Sea mouth of the 700-mile river, almost 240,000 chum salmon swam into the Kuskokwim River this year, about twice the number counted by sonar last year but still well below long-term averages, the commission summary said.
For coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, there were notable improvements over the extremely low numbers of the past two years. According to the intertribal fish commission’s summary, 372,000 coho salmon were counted by sonar swimming into the Kuskokwim River, the largest total in the past four years. But as with chum, it is far too early to declare a recovery might be underway, Whitworth said.
“That’s not a trend when you have one year,” he said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game concluded that there was enough coho salmon in the Kuskokwim to allow a tiny bit of commercial fishing this year – by a single harvester.
Runs of Chinook, also known as king salmon, have been depressed for several years in the Kuskokwim River. However, goals for “escapement,” the term describing returns to spawning grounds, were met this year as they have been for each year in the past decade, according to the summary. That was accomplished through “precautionary management and huge sacrifices by subsistence users during this period,” the summary said. The commission’s Chinook escapement target is 100,000 to 120,000 fish; returns in most of the recent years have been within that range but far below earlier years’ returns that could exceed 200,000 or 300,000 fish.
In response to disastrous runs, the federal government in recent years has taken over salmon management in the section of river that passes through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began managing Chinook runs there in 2017, and the federal takeover for that section of river expanded to chum salmon in 2021 and coho salmon this year. That is in accordance with federal law, which stipulates that the Fish and Wildlife Service manage fisheries when there are severe shortages to ensure that rural residents have subsistence harvest priorities.
To Whitworth, a bright spot for Kuskokwim salmon management is a new U.S. Department of the Interior program called the Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative.
The program is designed to improve oversight, science and river conditions. Federally funded work in the program ranges from local replanting and riverbank rehabilitation projects to broad research projects examining conditions in saltwater and freshwater habitat.
In contrast to other salmon species in the Kuskokwim, sockeye salmon showed strength, with a return of over 900,000 fish as counted by sonar, according to the preliminary numbers in the intertribal fish commission’s summary. Subsistence harvesters were encouraged to target sockeye, and in the lower part of the Kuskokwim, sockeye accounted for over 40% of subsistence-caught salmon, according to the preliminary figures.
There is a wider pattern of sockeye strength in Alaska. The sockeye bounty has been mostly driven by recent record or near-record returns in Bristol Bay, site of the world’s biggest sockeye runs, but there have been strong sockeye returns in other parts of the state, too, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. There are indications that sockeye, unlike other salmon species, may be benefiting from warming climate conditions, scientists say.
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that it was coho salmon that the single harvester was allowed to fish.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.