Silver runs buoy region declared a disaster

Near-record returns on Kuskokwim River

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- 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 king and chum salmon 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. The runs were so bad 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,'' she said. ``The silvers may not be the take-home pay this year, but at least people are getting caught up.''

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 kings 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.

Stuart Currie, general manager of Arctic Salmon fish processing plant in Bethel, said the number of fish caught per boat was near the 1996 record run.

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

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.

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