The Naknek River is a rich freshwater ecosystem flowing from Naknek Lake to Kvichak Bay (IBA # 047) in inner Bristol Bay. The Naknek River supports a lucrative red salmon commercial fishery, a rainbow trout, king salmon and silver salmon sport fishery, and a salmon subsistence fishery. The river from the Bay to Rapids Camp is influenced by the large tidal fluctuations of Bristol Bay (tides hold back the fresh water flow). Sections of the Upper Naknek River, from Grassy Point to Rapids Camp, have shallow shores and island mudflats that are often exposed on the low tide cycle. Big Creek flows into the Naknek in this upper section. The Naknek River is one of the first freshwater bodies to open in spring and has a variety of aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, and forage fish (primarily smelt, salmon smolt, and lamprey) which provide energy resources for migrating waterfowl. Migrating spring waterfowl congregate especially from Grassy Point to Rapids Camp and shorebirds are commonly found at Rapids Camp and on other mudflats. Bald Eagles also congregate along the shore in spring and several nesting pairs are found at this site.
Alaska Peninsula/Becharof NWR has sponsored a waterfowl survey along the river from mid-March to mid-May from 1991 to 2006 (Savage and Murray 2007). Approximately 22 species of waterfowl regularly use the upper Naknek River in spring. Other species of waterfowl, waterbirds (loons, grebes, cormorants), and shorebirds (including Marbled and Bar-tailed Godwit) also regularly occur along the waterway. Bald Eagles feed on smelt and waterfowl, and sun on the river bluffs. Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns also feed and rest on ice flows or along the shoreline. Sandhill Cranes are common visitors. The Naknek River experiences peak waterfowl concentrations in colder years when open water appears to be less available in other areas, including peak counts of 9,200 Northern Pintails (Cook 1992), 1,750 Greater White-fronted Geese (Lapinski and Williamson 2005), 1,885 Common Mergansers (MacGowan 1994), and 2,640 Tundra Swans (Savage and Murray 2007). In every year from 1992 to 2006, except 1996, at least one individual day count of Tundra Swan exceeded 1% of the Western Flyway population, and in several years individual day counts exceed the 1% global population. There is limited information on residence times of individual birds, but it is known to be shorter than the survey period, so the number of individual birds using this site over the season exceeds these individual day counts.
Increased development and human use of the area poses the greatest threats to birds. The area already experiences moderate use, compared to other sections of the river, due to the rich fish and bird resources at this specific site. Most of the land could potentially be subdivided and developed, leading to increased human use. Legalization of a spring/summer subsistence hunt of migratory birds may have increased hunting opportunities. Civilian and military aviation managers have expressed concerns over the proximity of the airport to the spring waterfowl concentrations, although no management actions have been planned to date.
The Naknek River below mean high water falls under the ownership of the State of Alaska. The surrounding uplands in the area are owned or selected by the State of Alaska, Paug?vik Native Corporation, Alaska Peninsula Native Corporation, the US Air Force, and multiple private entities include private sport fishing lodges and individual residential or vacation property owners. Most of the area falls within the Bristol Bay Borough, but a small part is within the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The Bristol Bay Borough may obtain the access area at Rapids Camp eventually from the military.
The Naknek River is an important freshwater system connecting Bristol Bay with Naknek Lake. The river level fluctuates twice daily with the marine tides and seasonally with fresh water volume flowing out of Naknek Lake. The river is a corridor, and in some locations spawning area, for anadromous fish. Habitat in the Upper Naknek River includes river, mudflats, and riparian corridor wetlands. Near shore habitats include barren cliffs (exposed glacial deposits), several varieties of shrubland, several types of wetlands, and mixed forest. Urban development in the form of a major airport and surrounding roads is close to the area.
This area is used by multiple recreational groups and private entities. The river is used by sport fisherman in spring through fall and provides a transportation corridor for recreational boats. Waterfowl hunting also occurs in spring and fall. Local bird watchers congregate primarily in spring. Private lodges are found primarily near Rapids Camp and the oxbow below. Residential parcels also fall within this area. The busy King Salmon airport is adjacent to this area and aircraft fly over the area. At least one private float plane is docked on the river during the summer season. Historically, a military recreation camp was located at Rapids Camp. The Coastal Zone Management Plan for this area gives this area a special designation of Recreational Use.