MOUTH OF THE KENAI RIVER – After a 36-hour respite from commercial fishing offshore in Cook Inlet, the sockeye salmon flowed steadily along the beaches here on Wednesday. The fishing was not great, but it was good.
Silvery salmon flashed in the intermittent sunshine as they were dragged ashore in dipnets, and the air echoed with the sound of fish bats striking home to end the suffering of the fishes.
Only a few people, as defined by Kenai personal use dipnet standards, were on hand to partake. The crowds of hundreds that lined the beaches over the weekend were gone. Many of those who showed at midweek had come, they said, as much in desperation as in anticipation of any improvement in what has been pretty lackluster fishing since the personal-use fishery opened at mid-month.
It is set to close Sunday night. Commercial nets go back in the water for an extended period Thursday. The numbers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s offshore test net fishery do not indicate a big slug of fish in the Inlet headed for the river on the weekend.
The season appears unlikely to end on a positive note for dipnetters, and what appears destined to follow is likely to upset them even more. Fish and Game is sticking to an earlier prediction that there are still a couple million sockeye somewhere out in the salt.
As of Monday, biologists estimated a Kenai return to date of 2.6 mllion fish with the final run “projected to range from 4.3 mllion to 5.6 million…With this inseason assessment, management of the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet and Central District drift gillnet commercial fisheries remain under the regulations for runs greater than 4.6 mllion,” a statement said.
What all of that means in simple terms is that the biologists believe there are 1.7 million to 3 million sockeye still out there, and with the Kenai’s minimum spawning goal of 700,000 already met the fisheries managers will be turning the commercial fleet loose to try to catch most of these fish.
Good year to be a commercial fishermen
The commercial fishery, limited to about 1,200 permit holders, has now caught about 2 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game. The masses have landed a fraction as many.
Against this backdrop, the first embers of what could be a social media firestorm are smoldering on the Facebook page of the Alaska Outdoor Journal where some of nearly 10,000 fans, stirred on by site owner Gary Barnes, are expressing their unhappiness with a Cook Inlet salmon plan that calls for a commercial fisheries management priority in July that sometimes appears to be treated as the only management concern.
“I have composed a letter to the Commissioner of Fish & Game Sam Cotten I would like every Alaskan to copy and paste and email to him. As you read it you will see OUR point of view in this unfair and unjust treatment of tens of thousands (yes!) of Alaskans (and visitors) who rely on the Kenai’s surplus to get through each year in Alaska,” Barnes wrote there. “If you can COPY/PASTE in an email message that is all you need to do to be heard. If you call, it makes even more of the point. I would like to see this SHARED on EVERY AOJ followers FB page to show the State of Alaska’s public servants and officials that we will no longer be a pawn in the game of sharing our resources. Stand up and ROAR!”
As of Wednesday evening, more than 450 people had shared the post. The letter linked to the post called on Cotten, a commercial fisherman before taking the commissioner’s job, to cut back on commercial openings.
“The total of 108 commercial fishing hours per week leaves little time for any recovery of fish passage into the river and DENIES Personal Use and Sport anglers their FAIR share of the opportunity to harvest for their families in this time of exceptional abundance,” it said
“In light of this unfair and unjust exploitation of the Kenai River sockeye salmon run with only regard for the commercial interests, I and my family do hereby DEMAND you contact the Commercial fisheries manager in Soldotna and eliminate EO fishing time for the Beach Sites FROM THE THURSDAY closure window to at least 0001 MONDAY each of the next two weeks to allow for Alaskans to share in this resource FAIRLY.”
Fish and Game officials appeared to be ignoring the outcry. With a steady flow of sockeye into the Kenai, there was no reason not to do so. Were the biologists to let more than 1.4 million sockeye into the river – the upper range of the spawning goal – they are certain to face the wrath of commercial fishermen screaming that “over-escapement” would damage future runs.
Questions are now, however, being raised about that upper limit. For one thing, it doesn’t account for the in-river sport harvest which can take 250,000 to 300,000 sockeye out of the Kenai system. For another, it doesn’t appear to contain enough fish to ensure adequate spawners in key Kenai tributaries home to sockeye salmon such as the Russian River and Quartz Creek.
Some biologists have suggested a goal of putting 1.8 to million sockeye in the river, with the recognition that sport harvest will cut the number of spawners to 1.5 million, might make more sense in both environmental and economic terms.
Though the Kenai is famous for its world-record Chinook salmon, a significant portion of the Kenai Peninsula’s booming summer tourism economy is built around sockeyes. Even with the in-river return looking mediocre, the Fred Meyer shopping center near the river in the community of Soldotna was near standing-room-only on Wednesday as it often is during the summer tourist season.
Sales tax revenues from this one story alone provide 48 percent of the revenue for the city of Soldotna, according to a Univeristy of Washington study. The value of the tourism industry had the Soldotna-based Kenai River Sportfishing Association offering its own view on this year fishing season on Wednesday.
“Despite a big sockeye run forecast, in-river fisheries for sockeye have been
spotty at best as commercial fisheries have harvested 2 million sockeye through Monday’s regular commercial fishing periods,” it said. “This year’s up and down in-river fishery is a reminder of what a commercial fishing priority for sockeye looks like.”
The Alaska Board of Fisheries is scheduled to take up the issue of Cook Inlet salmon management this winter. Commercial fishermen, who can win or lose substantial amounts of money based on how the board set management policy, have long dominated these meetings.
Some social media activists are talking about taking the process to tubes via live webcasting to expose how the process works.
According to ADFG data, average inriver harvest (not catch) over the last 5-6 years has been over 400,000 (estimated) Sockeye in the sport fishery and over 400,000 (estimated) Sockeye in the PU fishery (which is also inriver harvest but not counted that way for some reason). Again, this does not include all fish hooked or caught and released. That’s an average of nearly 850,000 Sockeye harvested inriver every year and many more hooked and released or unreported – this with the current goals and limited PU season. Do we really need higher Sockeye goals when there is no data to suggest it will bring larger yields? Are our goals of how hot fishing should be any given day on the Kenai realistic? Is our expectation of how many people we can responsibly pack in boats and on the banks of the Kenai or how efficiently they can harvest Sockeye realistic? We are currently experiencing historically high Sockeye yields in UCI. If Sockeye production dips as it historically has, will this constitute a crisis? If Mr. Barnes’ blood pressure is this high over the largely successful and productive Kenai/Kasilof Sockeye runs and record inriver harvest of late, what will he do on a 2-3 million Sockeye return to UCI?