Spoiled by years of good fishing at the mouth of the Kenai River in mid-July, Alaska personal-use dipnetters seem primed to explode at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for its success in controlling the flow of sockeye salmon through Cook Inlet this year.
In an effort to keep sockeye from inundating the Kenai, the state agency has allowed aggressive fishing by both commercial set and drift net fishermen since early in the month. The commercial fishermen have to date caught more than 1.5 million sockeye while the fishing for dipnetters has been grim.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who left Anchorage at 4:30 a.m. early this week on a 160-mile drive to the mouth of the river with a fishing buddy, said “we got only 15 in four or five hours” of fishing. The limit is 25 per person with an additional 10 fish per family member.
“They should do something a little more for the dipnetters,” Gara said. “It’s managed solely for the commercial fishery.”
Gara’s comment reflects the view of most dipnetters, although the Upper Cook Inlet Management plans uses the words “primarily for commercial purposes” to describe how salmon should be managed in the Inlet from July 1 to Aug. 15.
Much to the dismay of dipnetters, circumstances have tipped the plan in favor of commercial fishermen this year.
Read ’em and weep
The Alaska Outdoor Journal Facebook page lit up with angry comments on Sunday after it posted the latest extra fishing periods given commercial fishermen below this statement: “HERE YA GO! READ ‘EM AND WEEP! NOT A SINGLE CONCERN ABOUT PROVIDING MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE PERSONAL USE AND SPORT FISHERS ON THIS RECORD KENAI RED RUN.”
“BOF (Board of Fisheries) once again proving it is as corrupt a government agency as exists in Alaska, and that’s saying something,” John Burd promptly posted in response. Others quickly chimed in with similar comments as social media, the tribal fire of these days, began to whip up the masses who see a conspiracy between state fisheries managers and a commercial fishing industry that has long wielded major political power in the 49th state.
There is no denying the political power, but the situation on the water in 2016 is somewhat unique.
As of Wednesday, almost 600,000 sockeye had passed a sonar counter upstream on the Kenai. That’s almost twice as many fish as last year at the same time and a number fast closing in on the minimum spawning goal of 700,000.
The early return has been big enough to cause fishery biologists to worry about going over the maximum escapement goal of 1.4 million sockeye, and thus commercial fishery managers have allowed heavy fishing by commercial fishermen.
“They’re staying within the plan,” Regional Sport Fisheries Supervisor Tom Vania said Tuesday. He offered no comment on his view of the plan.
It’s the plan; it’s the plan
The plan limits dipnetters to a short season that runs from July 10 to July 31. By the time the season opened this year, more than 230,000 salmon were already upriver. About a week of fair fishing followed as between 45,000 and 50,000 fish per day entered the river, but dipnet success fell as managers used commercial fisheries to try to choke off what appeared to be shaping up as a big return.
Their plan worked. Escapement into the river started falling. By Wednesday, the daily count was down to 18,300. Dipnetting success usually falls rapidly once numbers drop below 40,000 – 50,000.
Unfortunately, the in-river returns this year were going down at just about the time dipnetters usually expect them to start going up. Last year, the run started building around July 19 when 49,158 sockeye passed the sonar. There were more than 50,000 the next day.
The return slowed for a couple days after as commercial fisheries opened, but then took off. The 2015 run was, however, being managed differently than this year because there were so many fewer fish upriver in mid-July.
In 2015, the run didn’t hit the 600,000 mark until after July 24. With the return low, Fish and Game was conservative with commercial fisheries management and as a result an average of more than 58,000 fish per day entered the Kenai between July 23 and July 29.
The steady stream of salmon meant dipnetters did well almost through the July 31 end to their season. What happens this year remains to be seen, but if managers were to let 537,000 sockeye into the Kenai between now and the end of the dipnet season – as they did in 2015 – the in-river spawner count would be over 1.1 million.
Commercial fishermen start screaming bloody murder once it hits a million, claiming “over-escapement” might reduce the ratio of returns per spawner in future years.
How state fisheries biologist will handle the politics of the situation remains to be seen, but the outlook is not particularly encouraging for dipnetters. Gara said it might be time to think about setting a new, higher, minimum in-river goal to benefit both dipnetters and anglers.
He questions the data used to set the existing minimum of 700,000, which isn’t exactly what 700,000 sockeye used to be either. The numbers are complicated by the state upgrading the Kenai sonar.
All indications are that the old sonar was under-counting sockeye by about 40 percent. Thus a return of 1 million on the sonar years ago was actually 1.4 million while 1 million today is, theoretically, 1 million.
Dipnetters wondeirng why a 50,000 fish day now doesn’t seem like a 50,000 fish day might also keep that in mind because a modern 50,000 fish day would appear to be more like 30,000 back in the day.