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Alaska’s Greatest Gift, Pt. 4

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Let the games begin/WikiMedia Commons

The last of four parts: Battle lines, battle plans

From deck of Resolution Park on the edge of the water near the heart of Alaska’s largest city, one can look south down the inlet named Capt. James Cook toward the site of the most fought over fishery in the 49th state.

Cook sailed into the Inlet in May of 1778 searching for the fabled Northwest Passage across the North American continent. He didn’t find it. Neither did he notice the wealth of fisheries resources over which the Athabascans and the Eskimos, earlier arrivals in Cook Inlet, were already fighting.

The Russians would join the mix chasing salmon the not long after Cook left, but it would take the purchase of Alaska by the Americans in 1867 to bring industrial fishing to the Inlet. It began on the banks of the Kenai River in 1878 with the Alaska Commercial Company catching red and king salmon in dip nets, gill nets and weirs, according to a well-footnoted history of the fishery on file in the Alaska State Library.

Alaska Commercial carved out the fat-heavy bellies of the salmon and salted them for sale Outside. A barrel of salted salmon bellies sold for $12 to $14 in San Fransisco at the time. It lasted only until canneries showed up on the scene. That didn’t take long.

Commercial take over

The first cannery appeared along the Inlet in 1882. There would be three within a decade as the commercial fishing business spread across the land and began to take over coastal Alaska.

By 1900, there were five canneries in the Inlet, and Chinese workers were being brought in to provide labor. The commercial operations quickly displaced local Native fishermen, but no one much cared. By 1931, there were 17 canneries scattered around the Inlet running 77 fish traps. Traps were then the primary fishing method.

The first fishing regulations appeared in the 1920s. They required half of all returning salmon be allowed to spawn. How well they were enforced is unclear.

The salmon pack kept growing. It peaked at 420,000 cases from the 14 canneries still in business in 1950.

Alaska statehood was by then a threat to the cannery overlords and Outside interests that controlled the fishing business. Statehood arrived in 1959, and the first thing the new state did was outlaw fish traps, the main means of production for the canneries. Libby, McNeil and Libby, which had started a cannery in Kenai in 1912, promptly quit the canning business and sold its Alaska assets.

There were at that time 994 resident and 148 nonresident fishermen already reported to be working the Inlet with commercial nets. About two-thirds of them were set netters and the majority of the rest drifters, but 112 beach seines were registered. The state would later outlaw seines.

An almost private resource

These were the good old days for commercial fishermen in the Inlet. Subsistence and personal-use fishermen had been pretty much brushed aside. What little angling had developed focused around the Kenai tributaries of the Russian and Moose rivers. The world-record-size king salmon swimming up the Kenai itself were almost wholly overlooked.

The good old days wouldn’t last for long. Massive changes were on the way north.

The discovery of the Swanson River oil field in 1957 would change everything. By the 1960s, the population of the state would be growing steadily and salmon runs would be collapsing in the Inlet.

By the 1970s, the transAlaska oil pipeline would be under construction and Alaska would be rapidly growing. The resulting population boom would have statewide effects.

By the 1980s,  sport fishing would be going great guns in Alaska, and commercial fishermen who’d thought themselves set for life with the 1972 passage of limited entry would be at war with sport fishermen.

Worse yet, come the 1990s, the subsistence/personal-use fishing mobs would enter the picture with their demands that salmon should go first to feed Alaskans and not fatten the pocket books of commercial interests.

Rear-guard action

Looking back, the most amazing thing about the Cook Inlet fishery might be the success commercial fishermen have had in hanging onto their piece of the pie in the face of this ever-growing competition.

The sport and personal-use harvests of salmon, especially Kenai River salmon, have grown over the years. The sport catch of Kenai red salmon peaked near 500,000 in 2013, about 250,000 fish higher than in 1996. The personal use catch increased far more from a catch of 103,000 in 1996 to a peak of 538,000 in 2011 before settling  into a range of 350,000 to 380,000 per year.

The commercial catch of Upper Cook Inlet sockeye, however, has not decreased much. Sockeye are the commercial money fish.  The commercial catch in the 1990s averaged 3.8 million per year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The catch in the 2010s averaged 3.5 million.

Commercial catches more than tripled after Alaskans approved limited entry in 1972 to bail out commercial fishermen. The harvest in the 1970s averaged 1.1 million.

Harvests went up as state fisheries managers increased so-called “escapement goals,” a count of the number of fish escaping fishermen to enter rivers and spawn. Everyone agrees there is a limit as to how much runs can be increased by upping escapements.

Commercial fishermen now warn the state is at the limit. The talk a lot about “over-escapement.” They argue that furthers increases in escapement might benefit dip netters and anglers but will harm the commercial fishery by reducing “yield.”

Think of this as ocean farming. The farmers, in this case fishermen, want the Kenai to produce the maximum sockeye per acre. They are pegging a Kenai sonar count of about 1.2 million sockeye as the prime point for yield.

Fishery managers these days shoot for 1.1 to 1.35 million sockeye past the sonar. Just over 1.35 million fish made it this year. Somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 were likely caught by anglers above the sonar, leaving an expected 2016 escapement of about 1 million to 1.1 million.

The Fish and Game escapement goal for the Kenai is 700,000 to 1.4 million. Escapement is the conservation standard. The sonar goal is what drives the fisheries, and in purely practical terms, it’s pretty simple.

The greater the number of fish past the sonar, the better than dip netting and angling. The greater the number of fish past the sonar, the more the financial loss to commercial fishermen.

Dipnetters and anglers appear to have finally began to understand. They are expected to push the Board of Fisheries to up the sonar goal instead of lower it. Some say 2 million fish past the sonar, which would put the spawning escapement at 1.5 to 1.6 milion after the angler harvest is removed, sounds about right.

Commercial fishermen will argue that is over-escapement, but escapement is a moving target to which little attention is paid except on the Kenai. In most Alaska fisheries, if the managers exceed escapement they consider it a success. But most fisheries aren’t the politically charged Kenai.

Simple math

Dipnetters say the sonar provides a good barometer for what kind of fishing success they can expect. On days that it clicks of 50,000 salmon, the fishing is good whether dipping from a boat with an oversize landing net or from shore with a larger and heavier net manufactured in Alaska specifically for dip netting.

There were three days this year when the sonar counted 50,000 or more sockeye entering the river. Two of them came during the July 10 to July 31 dipnet season. One of those was July 15, which is unexpectedly early in the season.

Dipnetters were not happy. The Alaska Outdoor Journal, a Facebook site for anglers and personal-use fishermen, exploded with complaints in July with administrator Gary Barnes calling for changes in salmon management. Many voiced their support for Barnes. How much this dip-netter anger carries over to the board meeting in February 2017 remains to be seen.

Historically, neither dip netters nor anglers have shown much interest in the board process, aside from some efforts to protect king and coho salmon stocks, and fishing opportunities for those species. The combined result of those actions have meant more for conservation than for fishermen.

Susitna River drainage coho harvests that averaged 45,000 fish per year from 1998 to 2009 and never fell below 30,000 per year started falling in 2010 and are now below 30,000 per year. Susitna River drainage king catches that ranged from 17,000 to 31,000 fish from 1996 to 2009 hit bottom at 2,049 in 2014.  It was much the same story on the Kenai Peninsula where king harvests fluctuated between 15,000 and 30,000 fish from 1996 to 2009. The catch was down to 2,424 in 2014, the last year for which data are available. Only Kenai coho harvests have held steady over the years.

Some of these fisheries – most notably the Susitna coho fishery and what was once a major fishery for late-run kings on the Kenai – are affected by commercial fishing of mixed stocks of salmon in the Inlet. Concentrating commercial fishing on the predominate stock – sockeye – makes it difficult to protect the weaker stocks – silvers and kings.

Any number of complicated management plans have been drawn up over the years to try to protect weak stocks while maximizing the harvest of the commercially most valuable stock. The plans have worked to varying degrees.

The simple solution – upping escapement of Kenai sockeye – has been ignored because of opposition from commercial fishing interests. But Kenai sockeye comprise the tail that shakes the entire Cook Inlet dog.

The more commercial fishing targets Kenai sockeye, the greater the incidental harvest of late-run Kenai kings in set net and Susitna-bound coho is drift nets. Raising to 2 million the goal for sockeye salmon past the Kenai sonar counter would invariably result in the escape of more those late-run kings into that river, the escape of more silvers into the stream of the Matanuska-Susitna borough, an improvement in the dip net fishery, and great angling for sockeye in the Kenai itself where the salmon fishing is density dependent.

It is easy to catch sockeye with rod and reel when they are found in schools of hundreds. When they are traveling in groups of five or less, it is hard to catch them at all. If they are traveling alone, it is impossible.

But a 2 million fish escapement goal for the Kenai will never sell with commercial fishermen. It would, they argue, decrease the “yield.” The return-per-spawner might fall. The overall annual run might shrink slightly. And the commercial harvest in the Inlet might have to be reduced accordingly to recognize that new reality.

Two million sockeye making it into the easily road accessibble Kenai might be good for anglers and dip netters all across the state, not to mention the tens of thousands of tourist anglers that now visit Alaska, but it could be bad for the commercial fishery.

No, it wouldn’t push the harvest back to the 10-year average of the 1970s at 1.1 million sockeye or the 10-year average of the 1960s at 1.3 million, but it is possible it could push it below 3 million for the first time since Alaska voters blessed commercial fishermen with limited entry and a state management structure that turned around failing fisheries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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