Salmon running strong in Kuskokwim and Kotzebue fisheries

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

Strong salmon runs spelled good news this week for Kuskokwim River and Kotzebue Sound fisheries.

Silvers have returned in near record numbers to the Kuskokwim, despite a disaster declaration for Western Alaska communities devastated by dismal runs this season. And farther north, the Kotzebue Sound chum run is shaping up to be a healthy one.

Gov. Tony Knowles has declared a disaster emergency for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound drainages. Returns of king and chum salmon to the regions were at an all-time low this year. So bad were the runs that even subsistence fishing had to be limited.

The relief effort so far has secured more than $8 million, with the administration seeking more federal money.

Now the silvers are running in the Kuskokwim River, which played host to a commercial opener for only the second time this year. This time, however, instead of pulling in empty nets, fishermen filled their boats with gleaming silvers.

''I think this silver run is a godsend,'' said Rep. Mary Kapsner, who has spent her legislative recess working as the Bethel operations manager for Coastal Villages Region Fund's seafood division. ''Traditionally the chum run is when people would catch up on their winter debts and make their boat payment, and the silver run was the take-home pay. The silvers may not be the take-home pay this year, but at least people are getting caught up.''

Stuart Currie, general manager of Arctic Salmon fish processing plant in Bethel, said he is worried that the run may actually have started early and that many of the fish may already have gone by.

Currie said there is usually only about a 10-day window for the peak part of the run, and he fears that fishermen may be on the backside of that window.

Doug Molono, a fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that fish passing in equal numbers of males and females may indicate the run's peak. In the sample taken last Friday, the run was at about 55 percent female fish, Molono said.

Because of the disastrous chum and king runs earlier this season, Fish and Game is going to be cautious in opening the coho fishery on the river, which might interfere with chums and chinooks getting to their spawning grounds.

Yet the numbers are still positive.

Charlie Burkey, a fish biologist for Fish and Game, said the Bethel fleet caught 25,624 coho salmon in 250 deliveries in four hours instead of the traditional six-hour period. That was done with only 245 of 386 permit holders fishing.

Currie said that the number of fish caught per number of boats fishing was near the 1996 record run.

Kapsner said that the strength in this year's silver run should be evidence that the problems facing the chum depletion in the region may be caused more by oceanic conditions rather than management problems.

''The two fish have very different life cycles,'' Kapsner said. ''Chum spend more time at sea than silvers, which is why I think there might be a lower chum run.''

The chum run looks more vigorous in the Kotzebue Sound, however.

Commercial chum fishing was a little slow last week, the limited effort attributed to strong winds. Otherwise, this year's run is meeting expectations of managers.

The cumulative harvest of commercial chum through Aug. 4 was 97,236 weighing a total of 853,301 pounds.

The 1996 chum run here was one of the best parent years in the area. While the parent year was much stronger for the four-year olds than this year's returns, still some indicators show the 2000 run to be above average.

The biggest problem Kotzebue Sound fishers face is the hurdle of a limited fish market.

The Kotzebue Sound chum generally come a little later than other runs in the state. This timing may be a factor that has helped the fish return this year, unlike what happened in other parts of the state.

''Apparently, they don't follow along the lines of other Western Alaskan fish,'' said Fred Bue, Fish and Game's acting area manager. ''Maybe they don't mix at the same time. Perhaps they don't encounter the same life stress.''

Bue said indications are that both the Kobuk and the Noatak rivers' runs will be good this year.

''It's pretty much going along as we expected,'' Bue said. ''It gives us confidence that our expectations were close.''

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