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 craigmedred.news, 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.
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.
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.