Alaska’s greatest gift, Pt. 3


Dipnetters at the mouth of Kenai River in July/Craig Medred photo

Part three of four: Carving up the pie

To hear Cook Inlet commercial fishermen tell it, any “extra” salmon that escape their nets to spawn in Alaska rivers are not just their loss; they are a drain on the state economy.

Early this year, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, one of the most politically active fishing groups in the state, issued a report claiming Inlet fisheries alone were under-harvested to the tune of about 18.5 million salmon worth tens of millions of dollars.  Of 23 million harvestable salmon returning to the Southcentral region, the report argued, only about 4.5 million get killed in commercial, sport or personal-use fisheries.

“If harvested in the commercial fishery, the 23 million salmon would be worth over $150 million dollars at the first wholesale value level,” said the report. Sixteen million of the 23 million unharvested salmon, or nearly 70 percent, were pink salmon which it would appear hardly anyone wants at this time.

When it comes to sales, they are as valuable as water and as worthless as the same.

The UCI report noted commercial fishermen now take only 4 percent of these fish. There is a simple reason. Pink salmon are the smallest, least fatty of the species. They are almost all chopped up and stuffed into cans in a global market where fresh and frozen salmon rule the day.

Prices paid fishermen for pinks are, as a result, low. Pinks sold for 26 cents per pound in the Inlet in 2014. That was about one-seventh the price paid fishermen for sockeye at $2.11 per pound. And it explains why the 2014 catch of 2.3 million sockeyes in the UCIDA report was three and a half times larger the catch of 650,000 pinks.

Pinks are lowly valued everywhere in the salmon-rich 49th state. Sport harvests in the region – 50,000 pinks – and personal use harvests – 27,000 fish – were tiny. State fisheries data would indicate stocked fish are actually more popular than pinks with average Alaskans. 

Alaska’s biggest, nastiest, longest-running, hardest-fought fish isn’t about millions of uncaught pinks or for that matter, chums. It is about three highly prized species of salmon:

Chinook, once the backbone of a booming guided fishing business on the Kenai River; sockeye, the freezer-filler for dip netters and a big tourist draw for anglers; and coho, the money fish for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Whether these fish are under-harvested, over-harvested or harvested at just the right level is a judgment call, and it all depends on whose making the judgment. In UCIDA’s view Chinook – those big Alaska kings – are second only to pinks and chums at the most under-harvested salmon in the region.

Too few kings killed

Commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen killed a measly 23,400 kings in 2014 when they could have killed 150,000, according to UCIDA. This means 126,600 or 84.4 percent went to waste.

UCIDA is, at the moment, in court trying to obtain federal oversight of state management in Cook Inlet because of this sort of underharvest. Alaska Department of Fish and Game “mismanagement (is) resulting in harsh fishery closures and severe economic dislocation and the waste of important food resources,” the suit contends. 

There is little doubt the state manages conservatively, most especially in the sport fisheries. The regional bag limit for kings is set at a single fish per day with a seasonal cap of five fish. The Kenai River bag limit for sockeye is set at three per day, even though UCIDA and other commercial fishing groups argue too many Kenai sockeye are escaping harvest. The Susitna River drainage bag limit for pink salmon is three, although fisheries biologists concede there is really no need for a bag limit at all.

There are so many pink salmon in Susitna Valley streams in even-numbered years and so little demand for pinks as food that catches would likely remain within allowable limits even if bag limits were lifted, they say. But nobody cares.

Cook Inlet fish wars aren’t about low-value pinks or, for that matter, chums. They are about prized Chinooks, tasty sockeyes, and increasingly valuable coho. UCIDA has a simple view on this:

“In 1996, the UCI sport and personal use sockeye harvest was 368,367. In 2014, that number had grown to 904,064 sockeye salmon. That number is greater than the harvest of the commercial set netters and was 60% of the commercial drift gillnet harvest.

“Most of this increase in the sport and personal use salmon harvest has been taken directly out of the commercial harvest with no financial compensation to the CFEC permitted users, aquaculture associations or State and municipal governments that receive shared tax revenues. The commercial industry loses the economic benefit of this salmon harvest and the State loses revenue. These losses have never been accounted or considered.”

Lies, damned lies and statistics

The UCIDA history notably overlooks how the commercial harvest grew orders of magnitude after the imposition of limited entry, while sport and personal use harvests were restricted and sometimes even stopped.

The sport restrictions, in fact, began before limited entry as salmon stocks shrunk.

In 1966, the Russian River – a Kenai tributary and arguably the best sockeye salmon fishing stream in the state – was made a fly-fishing-only area to make it harder for anglers to catch fish. In 1967, the fishing regulations were amended to limit the catch furhter to sockeyes hooked in the “head, mouth or gills.” In 1969, the latter regulation was extended to all Kenai Peninsula waters.

By 1973, it was amended to say anglers could only keep those sockeyes hooked “in the mouth.” This remains the regulation and it is aggressively enforced by the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, though there is no doubt it significantly drives down the angler harvest.

“Historically, snagging was the harvest method for taking sockeye (red) salmon in the Kenai River,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes. After snagged was banned as “a legal harvest method in either fresh or salt water, anglers began to experiment with alternate terminal tackle in an attempt to legally harvest sockeye salmon in the Kenai River. Their initial efforts were moderately successful….”

They remain moderately successful.

Personal use/subsistence fishing was restricted even more than angling. The federal government banned the practice in freshwater in 1952 by territorial edict, eliminating a traditional Kenaitze Indian form of harvest – the dip net.

People turned to either catching fish with gill nets in Cook Inlet like commercial fishermen or snagging them with rod and reel in the Kenai.

“By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal. This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish for home use,” writes state subsistence researcher James Fall. “More local residents headed to the beaches of Cook Inlet to fish with gill nets in the subsistence fishery.”

By 1981, the Alaska Board of Fisheries, a body then dominated by commercial fishing interests,  had banned the subsistence gill nets. People suddenly finding access to salmon difficult were unhappy. As a result, the first personal-use dip net fishery opened in 1982. It was to be allowed only after Fish and Game was confident commercial fishery and spawning needs for sockeye would be met.

The dip net fishery remained closed in 1984, 1985 and 1986. It took the Alaska Supreme Court deciding all Alaskans were entitled to a subsistence priority in 1989 to finally make the fishery permanent and regular. There was a Kenai subsistence dip net fishery created the next year.

Political pressure killed the subsistence fishery with its subsistence priority within two years, but the chance to net a freezer-full of Kenai sockeyes in a day or two had quickly become popular enough that the Board of Fisheries was afraid to do away with dip netting.

Thus began the Kenai personal-use fishery in 1993. Dipnetters caught 100,000 to 150,000 sockeyes per year in that fishery during the 1990s. The catch began to grow as sockeye salmon returns to the Kenai increased in the new millennium in response to increased spawning goals.

The Kenai sockeye goal was 500,000 to 800,000 spawners in 1999 and before. It was later boosted to  1.1 to 1.35 million sockeye in-river. As more fish flooded the mouth of the Kenai, the dip netting became better and the popularity of the fishery grew. The dip net catch peaked at 538,000 in 2011 and then started to fall.

The harvest has been below 400,000 fish for several years now. There are indications the fishery might have reached its saturation point as sport fisheries are wont to do. Research indicates they grow to the point that crowding becomes uncomfortable to some and people stop fishing. At saturation, the number of new entrants entering the fishery equals the number of old entrants leaving.

The Kenai dip net fishery, despite the worries of commercial fishermen that it could become the minnow waiting to swallow their whale, might have reached the saturation point. Still, the increase in rumblings from that corner of the peanut gallery is enough to worry commercial interests.

The Alaska Outdoor Journal was trying to foment a social media uprising on the Kenai this summer, and though it wasn’t gaining great traction, the power of social media is these days well-known to everyone. It blew apart the Mideast during the Arab Spring six years ago.

Next up, Part Four: Battle plans, battle lines






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