Kenai fish fight


Fish so few that many stayed home/Craig Medred photo

After Kenai River personal use dipnetters struggled through an often slow July trying to catch their winter supply of sockeye salmon, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game refused to grant them an extra couple fishing days at the start of August because it was said they might kill “too many” coho salmon.


The state agency then allowed several hundred Cook Inlet commercial fishermen to string their nets off and near the mouth of the Kenai for nine of the 15 days left in the commercial season at the start of the month. The result? Almost 20,000 dead coho.

That’s about five times as many as some 27,000 or so dipnetters catch during the entire July 10 to July 31 season, and more than four times the largest coho catch on record in the dipnet fishery.

But that’s not what has stirred the anger of retired Gen. Mark Hamilton, the former president of the University of Alaska now a board member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Hamilton is instead mad that a stage agency which built its reputation on its willingness to make the tough calls necessary to protect weak salmon stocks being exploited in commercial, mixed-stock fisheries refused to protect the last of the world-famous Kenai kings bound for the 49th state’s best known river.

In an Aug. 12 letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, a copy of which was supplied, Hamilton chastised the commissioner for overriding the Kenai River Late-Run Salmon Management Plan in order to give commercial fishermen, who were already having an unexpectedly good fishing season, even more fishing time.

Plan ignored

The plan, Hamilton wrote, “specifically states that from August 1 through August 15, the ESSN (East Side Set Net) fishery is limited to no more than a total of 36 hours of fishing time when the spawning population of late-run kings is projected to be less than 22,500 fish.

“Spawning escapement (the number of fish escaping harvest and thus with the opportunity to spawn) is currently projected to be well below 19,000 kings, which will place it among the four lowest estimates ever recorded. By approving Emergency (fishing) Orders #30 and #31, you made the decision that conditions in the fisheries warranted deviation from the codified plan.

“I understand that the Board (of Fisheries) has given you the authority to set aside plans when situations arise where fishery managers must compromise one management objective against another and it is impossible to attain both, but the tradeoffs must be rational and justified.

“The justification for additional commercial fishing offered in EO’s #30 & #31 is biologically questionable and highly allocative. In-river sockeye goals based on Kenai sonar counts are allocative rather than biological goals.”

Fish and Game’s justification for extra fishing time was the fear of  “over-escapement” of sockeye into the Kenai. Ken Tarbox, a former state commercial fisheries biologist now working for commercial fishing interests, and others believe that if too many sockeye are allowed to spawn in the Kenai competition between young fish for food will lead to starvation of some young and productivity will fall.

The current ceiling is 1.4 million. It has, however, come under fire from those who believe it fails to provide for adequate stocking of Kenai feeder streams. The fabled Russian River, which drains into the Kenai near the community of Cooper Landing, is struggling to meet its spawning goal this year.

So far, the return is below the minimum escapement goal of 30,000, but fish are still returning, and it is expected the river will eventually welcome 45,000 sockeye. That is near the bottom of an escapement goal of 30,000 to 110,000.

But the weak Russian return is not where Hamilton took issue with Fish and Game sockeye management. He criticized the agency’s fuzzy calculations on escapement, writing that the actual Kenai escapement – not the sonar-counter number bandied about by the agency – “is estimated by subtracting upstream sport harvest from the sonar count.

“Once the 300,000 or so upstream sport harvest is subtracted from this year’s sonar estimate, the final estimate of spawning sockeye will fall well within the Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) range of 700,000 to 1.2 million,” he wrote.

New vision

There is little doubt that the fishery trade offs weighed by Cotten, a former state legislator and retired commercial fishermen, are complicated and difficult ones.

Hamilton conceded that holding off on EO #31 would have saved only 47 late-run Kenai kings if the reporting in the fishery is accurate. East side setnetters have significant incentive to under report their king catches given the controversy surrounding commercial harvests of those fish.

But even if the reports are accurate at 47, Hamilton noted most of the fish are “older, larger fish at this point in time. You may argue that this number is too insignificant, but it is essentially equal to the projected shortfall that prompted closure (not even catch and release) on the Kenai early-run king salmon sport fishery at the onset of the season.”

Fish and Game blocked the opening of the early-run as a catch-and-release fishery in the belief that fewer than 50 of the released fish might die. The agency later relaxed the regulation to allow fishing when the early run turned out to be larger than expected, but that didn’t do much for tourism businesses dependent on anglers who book Kenai vacations in the middle of winter.

Hamilton also noted the decision on late-run kings needed to be weighed against a faltering August sockeye run that produced “just 8,733 fish or a meager four-tenths of one percent of the season’s total.” The total commercial catch now stands at about 2.3 million.

Many of the fish caught in August had also started to get the blush of sockeye (red) salmon spawning color and were thus worth less in the market place. But the strongest point made by Hamilton might have been this:

“I find it especially ironic that the last two Department sockeye salmon escapement reviews (2007 and 2016) show that the upper ends of the sockeye salmon escapement goals are routinely exceeded (40 to 50 percent of the time) every year throughout the state. But on the Kenai this is somehow portrayed as an ’emergency.'”

Politically active and powerful commercial fishing interests in Kenai have over the years portrayed over-escapement as the devil, and they have had some success in convincing the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which has traditionally leaned commercial, that the devil is at the doorstep.

And commercial interests are now blessed with a commissioner who is one of them. The job of Fish and Game commissioner has traditionally been held by someone trained in fisheries or wildlife sciences. Cotten, according to both supporters and critics, has done better than some past commissioners in weighing the many and competing interests who want to dictate management of Alaska fish and wildlife.

But in this case, Hamilton at least, is confident the commissioner dropped the ball.








7 replies »

  1. Craig,

    Thank you very much for expressing what 10’s of thousands of Alaskans are thinking!!
    -WE pay to develop and maintain a strong fishery in our state.
    -WE pay the bills for Dept of F&G (Including their unending pension and benefits/$12 billion of which is unfunded!)
    -WE live here all year round.
    -WE pay the $35.00 boat launch and park fee at the city dock.
    -WE drive by the Soldotna F&G office with the commercial fishing offices on the first floor.
    -WE stand in chest deep water holding nets while hearing deck hands on inlet bound boats say “Look at all of those f’n idiots!”
    -WE give up $1000 of our PFD only to have out or state workers (takers) sacrifice nothing.
    -WE in invite tourists to come visit our great state, participate in our sport fishing, and inject MANY more dollars per fish than a commercial fish.
    -WE are lucky if the Seattle fleet buys a Louis Lamore romance novel in the airport on the way out of town. If they do I am sure the $5.95 is a tax write off just like every penny they may drop here.
    -WE are morally just in in saying these fish are an Alaskan resource that the Alaskan people have every right to enjoy.

    -THEY take the vast majority of our fish. NO user group should be allowed to take this high of a percentage.
    -THEY promptly head back to the Pacific Northwest and file for unemployment.

    As an Native Alaskan and peninsula sport fisherman, I feel this years poor management and injustice with the Kenai River salmon run is by far the worst ever. EVER! Rumors are circulating of “sonar count data errors and counts being way off.” This may or may not be the case. What really does it matter, all of our fish are gone and the gear is put away. Sonar errors, maybe. I credit it also to the never ending greed, corruption and thuggery.

    Thank you again Craig!!


    Bring it on all of you Seattle and Portland haters. Please don’t think your opinions matter as you sit there sipping your glorious Chardonnay in your zillion dollar house. You are nothing but takers. That in itself violates the true spirit in which our state is all about!!

    • Are you serious? Most commercial permit holders are Alaska residents. Salmon are owned by citizens of the United States not Alaskans. In fact the dip net fishery being exclusive to Alaskans is probably illegal.

      Craig indicated that I advocate for commercial interest. Not true. I advocate for high sustained yield which means harvesting fish. The commercial fleet does that to meet escapement goals. The commercial industry is also critical to my community economic diversity. Therefore when I see or hear false information I respond. Stick to the facts and stop the labeling of individuals and the discussion can be civil.

  2. This article is totally misleading and wrong. First I do not work for the commercial fishing industry. I did some work for them back in 2003 as a technical advisor but have not worked for them since. That is 13 years ago and Craig is being typical Craig – misusing data and facts to suit his purpose.

    Next, he fails to define all the management plans in UCI that govern a decision and while some like KRSA want to just use the SEG for Kenai that number is not in regulation. The two numbers the Department must meet are the OEG and the in-river goal. The UCI overall management plan defines in-river goals as escapement goals for the purpose of management.

    I left the Department in 2000 and for the last 16 years after review by numerous scientists within the Department the goals have remained in place and the reason. While some want to argue about goals to achieve an allocation objective the Department has been very objective in this debate and kept the goals in place.

    Finally, if you are going to challenge one on who they worked for in the past, even more than a decade ago, for less than 3000 dollars maybe you should tell the public how much money you have received from KRSA or Mr. Penney in the last two decades.

    • Ken: As to the first, you’ve been a tireless advocate for commercial interests (whether paid or not) for more than a decade. The work may be volunteer, but it’s still work. I work on this website everyday. Some days (too many) I don’t make a dime. It’s still work.

      I’m also fairly familiar with “all the management plans in UCI” of which there are too many. We could probably simplify things greatly by just setting a goal of 2 million sockeye past the Kenai counter, giving the in-river sport fishery an allocation of 300,000 of those fish and view an EG of 1.7M as acceptable.

      As you well know, escapement goals are moving targets hard to hit, which is why they have ranges. As you well know, scientists can also debate OEGs at length because there is no magic number at which production is good on one side and bad on the other side, and if there were such a perfect number one year it would likely change the next because nature is ever changing.

      I have received no money from KSRA. I did try to get them to advertise on the website. Like most in his state, they seem to want to see more news, but nobody wants to pay for it. I wish I had Tier I Alaska state retirement. If you want to use some of yours to help out here, punch the donate button at the bottom of the story. A contribution would be appreciated.

      I did once get paid by Mr. Penney – I can’t remember offhand exactly how much, but it was in the neighborhood of $2,000 – to talk to various people about whether there was a chance of brokering some sort of legislative solution that would take the initiative to ban setnets off the Alaska ballot. I thought there might be better ways to achieve the goal of putting more late-run kings in the Kenai.

      As you might remember, you were one of the people to whom I talked. I enjoyed the conversation. I thought you had some very good idea on how to minimize the interception of late-run Kenai kings. I’m sorry those ideas never got implemented because, as you know, the state managed to get the initiative thrown off the ballot. The Supreme Court decided that a vote to eliminate setnets would amount to non-settnetters allocating themselves fish. The decision still seems strange to me, given that drift netters and not the average voter, would have been the allocative beneficiary if the initiative had passed.

      But it is what it is, and now all interest groups are back to fighting for allocation before the Board of Fish. I expect you will have some input there either directly or indirectly. It takes effort to produce the input. It’s called “work.” It’s not a prejudicial term. Work is a good thing. It helps us define our lives.

      Mine has been journalism for a long time. It is not a perfect business. You missed the most obvious accusation as to possible bias. I went down and dipnetted some Kenai sockeye this year. Yes, I’m a dipnetter. So I have a stake there. I tried to rise above it. And facts are facts.

      When the Department is planning to let commercial netters catch close to 20,000 coho, it seems absurd that they shut a dipnet fishery likely to catch less than 1,000 because the dipnetters would catch “too many.”

      Is this some sort of new math?

    • Ken, howdy. I agree that the management objectives that the ADFG is obligated to attempt to achieve are the Optimum Escapement Goal (OEG) and the in-river goal range for the tier of abundance of Kenai sockeye that is projected. Now the in-river goals are expressed in sonar counts and the sonar unit is located at Mile 18 on the Kenai. The OEG is measured in estimated numbers of spawning sockeye, real fish so to speak, distributed throughout the Kenai drainage. So, what is your recollection of the logic behind having the top end of the in-river goal range for the upper abundance tier in the sockeye management plan only 1,350,000 sonar counts when the upper end of the OEG is 1,400,000 spawning fish and we clearly know that approximately 300,000 sockeye will be harvested by the sport fishery upstream of the sonar counter? Seems to me like we are saying one thing, that being the OEG range is up to 1,400,000 fish but we are managing for no more than 1,050,000 even at the highest tier of abundance. Aren’t we intentionally attempting to assure that we will never see escapements distributed throughout the escapement goal range that is set in regulation?

      • No Kevin, just the opposite. The Kenai as you know has exceeded the in-river goal most years and been on the high end of the OEG or SEG as a result. I am not sure why the Board of Fish set the in-river goal lower than the OEG for the next three years (they meet every three years) starting in 2014 but one reason could be to let the Department try and put escapements in the lower range of the SEG and OEG and meet the mandate to spread out the escapements. Not sure given the record is not clear from the Board meeting. It could have just been an error in judgement by the Board because they were confused on OEG vs in-river goals.

        Anyway, the Department did a good job this year of meeting goals in a tough environment. The Kenai sockeye will be in the OEG and chinook in the SEG range so what is the beef? The President of Kenai River Sport Fishing Association wants to make it an issue and says harvest a few thousand sockeye at the end of the season does not matter. What he failed to grasp is that right now the in-river counts are over 1.325 million and probably will end up around 1.4-1.5 million. Thus leaving a 100,000 not harvested in the interest of getting coho into the river per the management plans. The Department could have been fishing everyday up to the 15th to harvest those fish. 100,000 sockeye represents around 1 million dollars lost to the industry. So complaining about 12 hours of addition fishing time in August seems pretty petty to me.

  3. Two additional points,
    1 the means of the counting the salmon, which is a hand clicker watching a viewing screen is suspect at best. They Count 10 minutes out of an hour , for 8 hours a day and then extrapolate out the number that gives us the escapement number.
    2 the years that supposed over escapement occurred had no effect on future 2 and 3 years returns

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