A federal agency wants to end a tiny subsistence, gillnet salmon fishery in the Kenai River for almost the exact same reason — bycatch — that more than 43,000 Alaskans in 2013 signed a petition asking for a public vote on closing a major commercial gillnet fishery in Cook Inlet.
“Of particular concern,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a proposal to the Federal Subsistence Board, “(is) the potential bycatch of stocks or species that are spawning, less abundant and prone to overharvest, or of critical size.”
The proposal — submitted under the names of by Mary Colligan, assistant regional director for Fisheries and Ecological Services and Mitch Ellis, regional chief of refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System — goes to great lengths to outline the indiscriminate nature of gillnet fisheries.
“In general,” it states, “gillnets do not allow for species, stock and size selective management and do not allow release of incidentally caught non-target species.”
By-catch has become an issue of growing concern across Alaska in recent years as competition for fish stocks has increased and some species of fish have fallen into decline. Trawlers hunting pollock, Pacific ocean perch and other species in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea have been under fire for catching declining halibut. Subsistence gillnetters on the Kuskokwim River ended up in a battle with state officials over catching declining king salmon. And there have never been enough fish available to keep the by-catch of kings in gillnets from becoming an issue in the waters nearest Alaska’s urban core.
The twist in the latest case is that federal officials are worried not about what the Ninilchik Village Tribe has caught, but what it might catch. There has been no bycatch reported to date, but fisheries managers worry that there could be, and they clearly don’t want another salmon allocation problem with which to deal.
The bycatch of king or chinook salmon — particularly late-run Kenai kings — in Cook Inlet commercial setnets has been fought over endlessly before the state Board of Fisheries since the 1980s, and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance tried to take the matter directly to voters in 2014. It gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot an initiative to let voters decide on the future of setnets, but the petition was rejected by then Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in Jan. 2014.
Backers of the initiative went to court, and Treadwell’s decision was overturned by an Alaska Superior Court judge later the same year. That lower court ruling, however, was appealed to the state Supreme Court which eventually ruled the ballot initiative unconstitutional.
“The initiative would result in a give-away program of salmon stock from set netters to other types of fishers, and it would significantly narrow the legislature’s and Board of Fisheries’ range of freedom to make allocation decisions,” wrote Justice Joel Bolger for the majority.
The court rejected conservation concerns without mention and concluded that the petition violated “the core objectives of the prohibition against appropriative initiatives because it would transfer salmon to a majority user group — sport and personal use fishers — at the expense of a minority user group — commercial set netters — and would reduce the legislature’s and Board of Fisheries’ control over allocation decisions regarding salmon.”
The initiative could have put a few thousand more king salmon into the Kenai River, some of which might have been caught by sport fishermen, but the group which stood to gain the most consisted of commercial fishermen. State fisheries biologists said the elimination of setnets would likely have shifted the catch of hundreds of thousands, up to a million or more, sockeye salmon into the holds of the boats of commercial drift netters.
Last year, commercial drifters caught about 1 million sockeye in the Upper Inlet with another 1.5 million sockeye, plus about 7,000 king salmon, caught in set nets. Combined with a catch of about 600,000 sockeye elsewhere in the Inlet, the commercial catch totaled 3.1 million, 15 percent less than the 10 year average of 3.7 million. Sockeye are the Inlet’s big money fish.
The estimated sport and personal-use catch of Kenai sockeye was somewhere around 600,000 to 700,0000 with about 400,000 of those fish caught by dipnetters. The rod-and-reel catch is not closely tracked during the season and varies considerably depending on how many fish get into the river. Anglers caught about 300,000 with rod and reel in 2013 when about 1.4 million sockeye escaped various kinds of nets to make it into the Kenai.
About 1.7 million sockeye escaped into the Kenai last year, but a lot of them came late. Only about 900,000 fish had entered the river before the dipnet fishery closed on July 31. Another 800,000 came after.
The in-river catch of late-run Kenai kings, the most prized of the sport fish, was about 1,100 fish, a small fraction of the number caught in the commercial fishery.
And the subsitence catch which now concerns the Fish and Wildlife Service? 270 sockeye, or so the Ninilchik Tribal Council told the Redoubt Reporter. The Ninilchik tribe holds the lone subsistence permit for the Kenai. The permit allows it to fish the river with one 60-foot-long gillnet.
The tribe itself has asked the Federal Subsistence Board to make its now temporary Kenai permit permanent and extend the fishing season from May 1 to Nov. 15. It last fall sued the Federal Subsistence Board and Jeff Anderson, the fishery manager for the Kenai Refuge, saying they had ignored federal requirements giving rural Alaskans a priority.
“As a direct consequence of Mr. Anderson’s arbitrary and unreasonable conduct, and the FSB’s failure to take action to rescind his in-season closure and to issue a gillnet permit for the Kenai River, NTC was not provided with a meaningful subsistence opportunity during the 2015 subsistence salmon fishing season, nor was NTC able to meet its subsistence needs, causing the tribal members and community great hardship and irreparable harm,” Ivan Z. Encelewski, the executive director of the Ninilchik Council charged in the tribe’s February-March newsletter.
Both commercial fisherman and anglers have generally opposed in-river netting and vigorously opposed it prior to June 15 because of a dying return of early-run Kenai kings. The Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community in its own appeal to the subsistence board noted that an early king run that used to number 15,000 to 20,000 fish is now down to barely more than 5,000. The Cooper Landing-Hope group joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in supporting an end to gillnetting in the river.
The early Kenai king run is in such bad shape that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game refused to allow a catch-and-release fishery again this year. The agency has estimated that the catch and release fishery leads to the death of five fish. Some Kenai guides have argued that five dead fish — a number smaller than the statistical error in the salmon count — is an acceptable price to pay to keep alive a fishery once estimated to be worth about $15 million per year to the Kenai economy.
But state fishery biologists contend that the situation is so dire that any mortality is too much. The Cooper Landing-Hope group echoed that view in its opposition to the Ninilchik gillnet, arguing that “the nonselective nature of a gillnet does not allow for close management or control of fish harvests…and will likely result in Chinook harvest numbers that are above sustainable population levels.”
In issuing a permit for the net last year, the subsistence board set a season opening date of June 15 for the fishery and required the Ninilchik Tribe submit an operational plan. The plan was submitted on May 27. On June 9, however, Anderson notified the tribe the fishery would be closed by emergency order to protect the faltering return of early-run kings. He officially stopped the tribe from fishing on June 17.
Fishing was allowed to resume on July 13, but the tribe never did catch many fish. Meanwhile, it complained, rod-and-real fishermen were catching some kings and loading up on sockeye. There were so many sockeye the Kenai’s rod-and-reel limit was doubled from three to six in late July.
Ninilchik members can fish with rod and reel or join in the state personal-use dipnet fisheries at the mouths of the Kenai or Kasilof rivers, but they prefer to fish with a gillnet.
“The gillnet is essential in order to provide for a meaningful subsistence fishing opportunity,” the tribe said in its own appeal to the subsistence board. “This will provide a more meaningful subsistence fishing opportunity while NTC petitions the Secretary (of the Interior) for extra-territorial jurisdiction. This will ensure that the current practices of the state and federal managers which has given preference to sport and commercial users before subsistence users is eliminated and ANILCA (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) is actually followed.”
ANILCA is a federal law that in 1980 created a hunting and fishing priority for rural Alaska residents. The law is intended to preserve in the 49th state a subsistence lifestyle long dead in the rest of the country. Ninilchik is a community of about 900 people along the Sterling Highway approximately 40 miles south of Soldotna. Tourism is a mainstay of the local economy.
The Ninilchik Village Tribe claims about the 900 members, though not all of them live in Ninilchik and not all of them are descended from the aboriginal residents of the area.
“…The Ninilchik Village Tribe is made up of nearly 900 tribal members representing a rich diversity of mixed cultures, and the members live in different communities throughout the tribal lands, the state of Alaska, and across the United States,” the council says on its website. “Currently, the tribe has a semi-open enrollment policy which allows non-Ninilchik descendants with Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition to join the tribe as non-voting members if they meet certain criteria including making their permanent residence within tribal boundaries. Several tribal members today are not direct lineal Ninilchik descendants and the modern tribe is made up of a mosaic of people from mixed Alaska Native, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and other cultures. The tribe is as socially complex as it is ethnically complex with members having a wide range of different professions, beliefs, and general ways of life.”
The Kenai River is outside tribal boundaries, but the tribe argues the river represents the best place for a “meaningful subsistence opportunity.”
Like almost everything in Alaska, it’s complicated.
Federal officials have considered ways they might allow the tribe to net the Kenai without harming kings or resident rainbow trout, but said they can find no way to do that using the gillnet with which the tribe prefers to fish.
Some studies, Colligan and Ellis reported in an 18-page analysis of the issue, “found that survival of Chinook salmon could be improved using 4.5-inch (mesh) tangle nets, but that the smaller-mesh tangles nets captured more non-target species than larger-mesh gillnets.”
The use of “live recovery boxes” in which to help rehabilitate fish removed from gillnets could also help, they reported.
But, they concluded that,”overall mortality can be high (over 30 percent), even with fish released using ‘fish friendly’ methods including small-mesh tangle nets, live recovery boxes and careful handling procedures.”
“Even during times of abundance,” they added, “these levels of mortality and the non-selective nature of a gillnet fishery are unacceptable for achieving size-specific management objectives for early-run Chinook.”
Mortality in catch-and-release fisheries using hook and line is generally in the neighborhood of 1 to 5 percent, depending on the species of fish involved. Mortality in dipnet fisheries is believed to be near zero. The Fish and Wildlife Service scientists suggested it would be better for Ninilchik tribal members to make use of those Kenai fisheries.
“Late-run sockeye salmon are available for harvest in rod-and-reel and dipnet fisheries in the mainstem Kenai River and in the Russian River,” they wrote, “and (other) federally qualified subsistence users harvest fish primarily in the Russian River, upper Kenai River, and the Moose Rage Meadows section of the Kenai River.
“Current methods (dip net and rod-and-reel) in established federal subsistence fish allow for selective harvest and release of fish that are not wanted because of their condition, whereas as a gillnet fishery does not allow for this level of selective harvest. Gear types that provide for selective harvest are a critical management tool to meet conservation goals for escapement and age and size composition.”
The arguments for selective harvest directly parallel the pleas for cleaner fisheries supporters of the setnet initiative made to the state Supreme Court, only to see the idea rejected. The Federal Subsistence Board will now get to weigh selective fishing techniques against older established and desired fishing gear at its spring meeting next year. Board staff say they are taking public comments on the issue until May 26 of this year.