For the first time ever, state fishery managers are closing the Kuskokwim River and nearly all its tributaries to coho fishing to conserve the species’ low returns. Anticipated federal action could still allow for some subsistence openings in the lower river.
For now, the month-long closure takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 17. At that time, subsistence fishermen will no longer be allowed to fish with gillnets, fish wheels, beach seines, or dipnets on the Kuskokwim River, from the mouth upstream to the headwaters.
Nearly all Kuskokwim River tributaries will also close to this gear, except for the Gweek, Johnson, Kialiq, Tagayarak, and Eenayarak Rivers, which will remain open 100 yards upstream from their confluence with the Kuskokwim.
Subsistence fishing with this gear will continue to be allowed in non-flowing waters, including lakes, ponds, backwaters, and oxbow lakes of the Kuskokwim River drainage, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Hook and line fishing will continue to be allowed throughout the drainage, but fishermen are not allowed to target coho and must return any coho back to the water alive.
The closures would mark the first time managers have closed the river to conserve coho salmon returns. State data indicates that the run is the second-lowest in the past decade and that the species is not expected to meet the state’s escapement goals for coho reaching the spawning grounds.
“As of Aug. 14, the Bethel test fishery cumulative CPUE for coho salmon was 746 (2008–2021 average is 2,112), and the total estimated passage past the sonar was 104,346 coho salmon,” Fish and Game wrote in its announcement.
However, federal managers could override the state’s actions in the lower river, from the mouth upstream to Aniak. These waters flow through federal land. Last week, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde said that he planned to declare federal management of the coho run in these waters if returns remained low. Blihovde said that he would seek to allow some fishing opportunities for coho. The announcement is expected later this week.
The federal government has a restraining order against the state that prevents the state from issuing conflicting management orders.
News of the low coho run comes as a worrisome blow to people along the river. While other runs have been tightly restricted in recent years, fishermen could rely on an open river to catch coho at the end of the summer. Last month, many fishermen had said that they were planning to target coho after a summer of limited fishing openings.