Netting Alaska’s spoils


The most fought-over commodity in Cook Inlet/Craig Medred photo

Fifty years ago with runs of most Cook Inlet salmon failing, every fisherman – commercial, subsistence and sport – paid the price of conservation.

But once the runs were rebuilt in the 1980s, commercial fishermen working the waters at the doorstop of Alaska’s urban core reaped nearly all the benefits. And average Alaskans kept paying conservation costs imposed by restrictive fishing regulations dating back to the 1950s.

This is one unavoidable conclusion stemming from weeks of research into  “Alaska’s greatest gift,” a four-part series  detailing the history of Cook Inlet fishing since just before Statehood on through the creation of limited entry and the state’s fisheries rehabilitation and enhancement program to the current day.

In the decade after statehood, the commercial catch of Inlet sockeye, the region’s money fish, averaged 1.3 millon per year. It fell in the 1970s as Upper Cook Inlet’s 1,300 commercial fishermen were allowed to catch only 1.1 million sockeye per year. The drop came in large part because fisheries managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were sharply restricting commercial fisheries to let more spawning salmon into streams in hopes of boosting production.

The plan worked. By the 1980s, the small group of commercial fishermen who’d been forced to conserve in the ’70s were netting 4.4 million sockeye per year on average. But the commercial fishermen weren’t the only ones who’d been forced to conserve.

Tens of thousands of average Alaskans who counted on salmon for their dinner tables and freezers had seen harvests sharply restricted. Hundreds of angling-related tourism businesses from the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to near the headwaters of the massive Susitna River had paid a price as stringent fishing regulations cut into their ability to attract both resident and tourist anglers.

What did they get out of the rebuilt fisheries? Not much.

Sockeye harvests by tens of thousands of anglers and dipnetters increased by only about 500,000 fish total. And catches of Chinook (king) and coho (silver) sometimes actually fell as returns of those species got caught up in indiscriminate commercial net fisheries that target sockeye, but net any salmon that happen to come along.

Everyone’s fish

Salmon are considered a “common property resource” in the 49th state. The Alaska Board of Fisheries, the state entity which oversees management, is bound by the state Constitution to “provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State…for the maximum benefit of its people.” 

“Maximum benefit” is nowhere clearly defined, though the Constitution does stipulate that when business opportunities granted by the state, such as commercial fishing or specifically mining, conflict with public uses of resources the state should provide for “reasonable concurrent use by others.”

Maximum benefit in terms of Cook Inlet salmon has, however, never been considered by the Fish Board. When it came time to start doling out rebuilt salmon stocks in the 1980s, the Board pretty much gave the new-found bounty to commercial fishermen.

Commercial sockeye harvests peaked at more than 9 million fish in 1987. Commercial coho harvests peaked at almost 800,000 in 1982 and remained at or near 500,000 per year through 1995. Anglers in the region caught a reported 136,153 coho in ’82, not much above the decade long average of 127,000. The catch has seldom reached even 250,000 because of restrictive regulations. The catch is today in the neighborhood of 100,000 per year.

The sport catch of sockeye, however, now averages 350,000 to 500,000 fish per year with more than 90 percent of the fish caught in the Kenai River. Anglers have fared demonstrably better there as increased goals for spawners escaping the commercial fishery (so-called ‘escapement’) has boosted the number of sockeye in-river and made fishing easier.

Still, the data makes it clear that fisheries management efforts in the Inlet at the back door of Alaska’s largest city have skewed heavily in favor of commercial interests for the past 30 years.

Of the increased annual yield of somewhere around 3.3 million sockeye since the 1970s, more than 70 percent has gone to a small group of commercial fishermen who have since the 1980s spun the popular belief the fish wars that began in serious in the ’80s have been nothing but an attempt by sport and personal-use fishermen to take fish out of the historic commercial harvest and reallocate them to the people.

It is a false narrative.

#Bad reporting

Blame journalists, if you must, for the growth of the idea that Inlet salmon allocation has something to do with stealing the historic catch of commercial fisheries. I admit to some personal responsibility.  I was around when the big Inlet fish wars of the ’80s erupted over king salmon by-catch. Reporters at the time, all of them, assumed the Inlet’s commercial fishermen were entitled to massive catches of sockeye.

Commercial fishermen at that time argued that restricting sockeye catches to reduce king by-catch would be taking something away from them. Commercial fishermen portrayed themselves as an embattled minority, the cowboys of the sea, threatened by a massive influx of “recreational” fishermen (and a growing number of women) trying cut into the long-standing commercial catch.

Reporters never challenged that story. They should have.

The reality was something different. The long-standing commercial catch supposedly being taken away never existed.

The average commercial catch of sockeye in the Inlet through the 1960s averaged 1.3 million and fell to an average of 1.1 million in the 1970s, as noted in Part 4 “Alaska’s greatest gift.” That’s a 20-year average of 1.2 milion sockeye per year.

That catch doubled and then nearly doubled again in the 1980s as commercial fishermen became the prime, sometimes sole, beneficiary of rebuilt salmon runs.

Dip-net fisheries – whether subsistence or personal use – rarely opened for long in the ’80s, and rod and reel fishermen remained restricted to a three-salmon per day bag limit and bound by a regulation stipulating they could only keep fish snagged in the mouth.

Sport regulations established at a time when salmon runs were seriously depressed remain in place to this day. The three-fish limit is now sometimes increased to six if concerns arise about “over-escapement” of large numbers of sockeye into the Kenai River, but that does not happen often.

The commercial catch, meanwhile, has fallen slightly since the end of the 1980s, but the average for the years since 1990 remains near 3.5 mllion sockeye per year.

While commercial fishermen are pulling in nets heavy with salmon, Alaska Wildlife Troopers spend their summers writing tickets to tourists anglers who happen to keep a sockeye that wasn’t hooked in the mouth per the terms of a regulation that dates to 1973, as noted in Part Three.

Tens of thousands of Kenai sockeye hooked other-than-in-the-mouth each summer are dragged to the beach, unhooked and released. Some of those fish, nobody knows how many, die. A more sensible conservation regulation in these days of sockeye bounty would require anglers to keep the first three (or five, the bag limit for the Kenai is artificially low) sockeye they drag to the beach.

But proposals to increase harvests in other-than-commercial fisheries are regularly opposed not only by commercial fishermen, but by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where an anti-harvest mentality is deeply ingrained in the Sport Fish Division, and some anglers, who find the snagging of fish unsporting, even while conceding nearly all Kenai sockeye are snagged.

Sockeye do not feed after entering freshwater. About the only time they aggressively strike at a lure or fly is when they are defending a spawning bed, and by then the fish are generally so spawned out – bright red and with green heads – that nobody wants them for food.

The trick on the Kenai comes in snagging chrome-bright sockeye in the mouth. It has become almost an art form for many.

Forgotten restrictions

This wasn’t always so. Prior to ’73, anglers were allowed to keep a salmon hooked anywhere in the head, mouth or gills. Prior to 1967, anglers were allowed to keep a salmon no matter where it was hooked. Rod and reel were then a primary means of personal-use and subsistence harvest on the Kenai, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The rod and reel snag fishery was ended in the name of conservation. It was never reinstated. It followed other in-river subsistence fisheries into the history books. All died in the name of conservation.

A state subsistence law, which came into being as the state tried to negotiate a deal with the federal government for continuing state management of fish and wildlife in the lead up to passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, did eventually force the return of one fishery, a subsistence dipnet fishery in the Kenai River.

Dipnetting – scooping fish out of the water with a big, long-handled net – dates back to  before the arrival the first Europeans in Alaska. The technique appears to have been pioneered by  Athabascans Indians who wove their nets from spruce roots and willows. Dipnets were used for subsistence throughout the Inlet by  the Tanaina Athabascans who took  control of of the area from the Chugach Eskimos not long before the first Caucasians arrived to start pushing the Tanaina aside to replace subsistence fishing with industrial, commercial fishing.

Subsistence would re-emerge for a short time after a 1980s lawsuit and a 1989 ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court that a state subsistence law gave all Alaskans interested in food a fishing priority on Inlet salmon. But that didn’t last for long.

Shortly after the court ruling favoring dipnetters, the state subsistence law was amended to eliminate Kenai subsistence, which provided for a harvest priority, in favor of a new personal-use fishery with no priority.

In the wake of that ruling came the existing Kenai personal-use fishery, which nows attracts the most economically diverse and ethnically mixed collection of fish-hungry Alaskans of any fishery in the state.

It is the bastard child of Inlet fisheries – loved by the dipnetters who participate and detested by a broad cross-section of others, including the City of Kenai, which runs a parking concession that profits off the dipnetters, and some in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who are now proposing the Board of Fisheries shrink the area open to shore-based dipnetters.

The reason? Marking the upper boundary of the fishing area is inconvenient and the agency fears someone might move its sign. What would be the significance of moving the sign? None, other than to provide a little more room for dipnetters on the north Kenai beach.

But the personal-use fishery is contentious because it is the one non-commercial fishery that has seen significant growth in harvest since the 1980s. It peaked at a catch of about 538,000 sockeye in 2011 but has since hovered around 350,000.

Still, 350,000 sockeye is a lot of fish for a fishery in which the catch was reported as “unknown” in 1981. The catch came in as 3,203 in 1983; and the fishery was closed for the next three years. 

Overall, the limited dipnet fisheries allowed in the ’80s averaged less than 10,000 fish year at a time when commercial fisheries were averaging 4.4 million sockeye a year. This changed only after the subsistence ruling and the subsequent establishment of a regular, annual personal-use dipnet fishery to replace the sporadic fishery that had taken place for only five out of 10 years in the 1980s.

The dipnet fishery topped 100,000 fish for the first time in 1996 and grew steadily before peaking and falling. An argument could be made, however, that it never caught enough fish.

Commercial fishermen are right

Commercial fishermen contend salmon are under-harveted almost everywhere in the region. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the most powerful commercial fishing lobby in the region, has written a report arguing the under-harvest totals 18.5 million salmon.

State data largely supports that conclusion.

What can be done, however, and how is a difficult question. Two of the salmon species UCIDA classifies as underharvested are kings and silvers. These fish already pass through mixed-stock fisheries where they are dangerously and easily exposed to over fishing.

Canada long ago noted the problem with mixed-stock fisheries. As noted in the Journal of Ecology and Society:

“Small salmon populations have suffered the majority of extirpations in British Columbia. Because many, or perhaps the majority, of these populations were not routinely monitored, the full extent of loss is unknown. Since the proclamation of the Species at Risk Act in 2003, several British Columbia salmon populations have been identified as endangered (Irvine et al. 2005). These and other small populations commingle with larger, unthreatened populations and are at great risk of extirpation if fishery practices are not changed. Fishing effort must be shifted from the mixed stock, large-vessel-dominated fisheries toward more terminal fisheries that use nonlethal harvest techniques, e.g., traps, weirs, fish wheels, and beach seines, which allow better targeting of specific runs, sorting and release of threatened species, and careful handling of harvested fish to maximize quality.”

There are indications some small populations of Alaska coho and chinook may have suffered because of mixed-stock fishing as stocks in Canada suffered. Alaska harvest tools for avoiding this problem are limited.

Fish traps are banned in the 49th state. They were outlawed at Statehood as Alaska’s political leaders tried to gain control of fisheries dominated by Seattle businesses interests. Weirs do not appear to have been used to harvest salmon commercially in Alaska. Beach seines were once used in the Inlet, but are now illegal.

The state has allowed commercial harvest with fish wheels on the Yukon River, and encouraged the use of dipnets both there and in the Kuskokwim River to try to prevent the fatal by-catch of king salmon. The techniques have not been tried in commercial fisheries in the Southcentral region of the state.

The “terminal fisheries” the Canadians favor are generally located around stream mouths or in fresh water. Alaska has freshwater fisheries on the Yukon and Kuskokwim, but does not allow them in Southcentral.

Conceivably, harvest of kings and silvers could be upped by liberalizing limits for anglers, but Fish and Game has for years stuck to conservative, in-stream harvest goals, often with the strong backing of the angling community in a state where some don’t much like Outsiders.

Some Alaskans get upset at the idea of summer tourists catching large numbers of salmon, filleting them, and flying the catch home in coolers. As a result of that attitude and the lobbying of commercial fishermen, state fishing regulations are now written to ensure about 98 percent of the salmon caught in Alaska is harvested commercially and moved invisibly out of the state.

Anglers – resident and non-resident combined – harvest less than 1 percent. Those coolers that tourists drag through the Ted Stevens International Airport as they head back home to the lower 48 might look like a lot of fish, but they’re really a pittance.

Non-resident commercial fishermen catch hundreds of times more. Even in Cook Inlet where only about 25 percent of commercial fishermen reported to be non-residents, the commercial take by Outside commercial fishermen dwarfs the harvest of Outside anglers who fuel a Kenai tourist economy now estimated to be worth $600 million per year. 

And the Matanuska-Susitna Valley reports sport fishing there is a $66 million to $163 million per year industry supporting 900 to 1,900 jobs, many of them in outlying areas of the wilderness-spanning borough and all vulnerable to fishing conditions that can be altered radically by how many salmon are intercepted by commercial fisheries in the Inlet.

Sorting the Constitutionally mandated “maximum benefit” from this tangle is no easy task, but then the Fish Board has never really tried. It will get another chance this winter, however, with Cook Inlet fisheries management on the schedule for meetings that start in late February of next year.  







5 replies »

  1. While listening to Hobo Jim’s Cannery song where he laments the extinction of Cook Inlet Dungeness and King crab fisheries, I was also reminded of the loss of clamming and seeing the lack of Silver Salmon this year. While Kenai Kings had a better year, its still was no wheres near as good as it could be. An Paltry Escapement of 15000 fish is a really low bar on a river of this size. And while we can blame one user group or another, This is purely resource mismanagement that one can only blame on the Department of Fish and Game.

  2. I’ve found your article quite informative and intriguing. I appreciate your points of view and I agree with so many. You’ve done an excellent job with generating this clear enough for anyone to understand.

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