Court Validates Federal Government’s Right to Limit Salmon Fishing on Kuskokwim River

Photo: Wesley Tingey via Unsplash.

A federal court judge has settled a dispute dating back to 2021 regarding whether the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) may periodically open the Kuskokwim River for fishing by all state residents. 

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason on March 29 ruled in favor of a final judgment in the case to enjoin the state from opening salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim River to everyone, rather than to only federal qualified subsistence fishermen living in rural Alaska, and not those living in urban Alaska.

Directed commercial fishing for Chinook salmon on the Kuskokwim River—the second largest river in Alaska—ended in 1987. The Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers have been the focus of ongoing research by numerous entities trying to determine causes of the decline of salmon in both rivers.

Researchers have cited a variety of reasons, ranging from bycatch of salmon in the Eastern Bering Sea groundfish fisheries to climate change and ocean pollution. Findings by Erik Schoen of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks note that waters in Western and Interior Alaska are warming nearly four times faster than the global average, and this warming is believed to be negatively impacting Chinook salmon.

Increased hatchery projection across the North Pacific Ocean may also be exacerbating negative impacts on salmon, researchers said.

The Biden administration in 2022 filed a lawsuit contending that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 required prioritizing rural residents harvest of fish and game in times of scarcity.

In the case before the federal court in March 2024, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was an intervenor with the federal government against the state of Alaska, and Gleason noted that the unique situation of rural dependence on subsistence uses of fish and wildlife was squarely implicated in the case.

The Kuskokwim River runs over 700 miles in southwest Alaska to Bering Sea, including 180 miles within Yukon Delta National Wildlife refuge beginning at the mouth of the river. Salmon species in the river include Chinook and chum.

Under ANILCA, subsistence is a priority, and the Federal Subsistence Board can restrict or eliminate taking fish and wildlife on public lands. Federally qualified subsistence users were allowed to use gillnets to harvest salmon on specific dates in June of 2022, but then the state tried to open fishing to all on three dates of that year.

The state reasoned that it intended the opportunity to “allow those individuals who have been displaced to the urban areas of Alaska for educational, social, health or other reasons to practice their traditional and cultural subsistence way of life that is closely tied to the Kuskokwim River.”

The state sought summary judgment on whether Federal Subsistence Board orders preempt ADF&G’s emergency orders authorizing subsistence gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River for all Alaskans.