The numbers are in at last, and it turns out Gary Barnes of the Alaska Outdoor Journal had the situation pegged six months ago when he complained to Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten that Kenai River dipnetters weren’t getting a fair shot at the annual return of sockeye salmon.
The state on Monday released the preliminary total personal-use dipnet catch for 2016, and it was the smallest in eight years. You have to go all the way back to the harvest of 234,000 sockeye in 2008 to find a catch of less than the 259,000 this year.
The drop in harvest doesn’t appear tied to any decrease in effort. Almost 24,000 permits were issued in ’08, and about 20,000 fished. About 31,000 permits were issued this year, and about 26,000 fished.
Both the number of permits and the catch in 2016 were way down from a peak of almost 538,000 sockeye harvested in 2011, and a peak effort of almost 36,000 permits in 2014 of whom almost 28,000 reported fishing.
The decline in permits might indicate that the fishery has reached its saturation point. The “displacement process” due to crowding is well documented in many outdoor activities. When some people decide they are likely to be fighting crowds, they quit showing up.
Take the sometimes crowded conditions in the dipnet fishery at the Kenai’s mouth, couple it to a fishery set up to make it hard to catch fish, and you have a fishery that last summer faced a double whammy of dipnetter disincentives to which Fish and Game is now trying to add. It has proposed closure of more of the Kenai to dipnetting, a move which can only increase crowding in the areas left open.
Fish and Game is explaining the small dipnet catch by noting the slow but steady entry of sockeye into the Kenai River this year, but apparently avoiding the reason for that. Barnes pointed out the reason several times over the summer.
Daily dipnet catches remained low because the daily entry of fish generally stayed below 50,000 fish per day – something of a magic number for dipnetting. From the time the dipnet fishery opened on July 10 until it closed on July 31, there were only three days that hit the magic 50,000 number and then just barely.
One of those days came unusually early on July 11 when a Fish and Game sonar upstream on the Kenai counted 50,695 sockeye. Most of those fish would have gone through the dipnet fishery on the opening day of July 10 when, historically, it isn’t worth visiting the river because the sockeye run is really just starting.
Another early swarm of fish hit the river on July 13 and the next day there were 50,574 past the sonar. Many a dipnetter thought that the start of the peak return, but the counter didn’t hit 50,000 again until July 23 when it counted 52,398.
As a result, the fishery was nothing like it was the year before when a big slug of fish hit the river in late July: 75,159 on the 23rd, 57,280 on the 24th, 72,100 on the 25th, 66,442 on the 26th, 49,749 on the 27th, and 58,985 on the 28th.
Why the difference?
Because state salmon managers did a superb job of following a management plan that makes commercial harvest of Kenai sockeye a July priority. Fish and Game carefully managed the commercial fishery to manipulate a monofilament curtain of commercial gillnet to intercept Kenai-bound sockeye.
The description of a slow but steady return is accurate, but it ignores the details of how that came to be.
Dividing the catch
Largely as a result of how the fishery was managed, the 2016 dipnet harvest was down a third from 2015 and nearly 20 percent below the 10-year average of about 316,000 sockeye. Meanwhile, the commercial harvest of almost 1.8 million sockeye was just a hair above the 10-year average in a year when the fish didn’t come back as expected.
Going into the season, Fish and Game forecast a Kenai sockeye return of almost 4.7 million fish, about a million above the 20-year average for the state’s most famous salmon river. But the total return came in at only about 3.5 million, more than a million under the 20-year-average.
Of that return, some 1.4 million sockeye, or about 40 percent, made it back into the river. About 1,100 commercial fishermen shared 1.8 million, or a little over 51 percent. And 26,000 dipnetters split the harvest of 259,000, or slightly under 9 percent.
Of the 1.4 million sockeye that made it into the Kenai, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 were caught by upwards of 150,000 rod-and-reel anglers. The Kenai supports the largest sport fishery in the 49th state, and the tourism it drives is vital to the Peninsula economy.
Along with powering tens of millions of dollars in economic activity, tourists in 2014 contributed $1.35 millions in sales taxes to the Peninsula borough and communities, according to an estimate from the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.
The sport fish catch left between 900,000 and 1 million sockeye to spawn, a number Fish and Game considers adequate although there is now some debate about the optimum number.
What transpired on the Kenai last summer set the stage for the Alaska Board of Fisheries to later this year take up the every-other-year issue of sockeye salmon allocation in Cook Inlet.
Commercial fishermen who have in the past pushed for reduced fishing time or limits for the dipnet fishery are staging no significant effort to pursue that strategy this year possibly because they have found a better tactic:
Control the way the Kenai fishery is managed. Hold down the entry of fish into the river. And the catch of the dipnetters will become almost insignificant.
Some dipnetters have figured this out. Barnes was trying to rally them over the summer.
“The Board of Fish process is a democratic process DESIGNED to allow the PUBLIC to participate in regulatory changes….IF they participate. This will be our year to make our presence FELT and our voices HEARD, in writing, in petition signatures, in electronic comments and in our own testimony. KEEP YOUR TORCHES BURNING AND YOUR PITCH FORKS AT ARMS LENGTH!” he posted on the Alaska Outdoor Journal Facebook page on Aug. 2.
He called for major changes in a fishery that affects “present day user groups numbering in the HALF MILLION Alaskans and visitors each year.”
Only 12 of his page’s 11,000 followers bothered to comment. Dipnetters have never mounted an effective lobby at the Fish Board meetings. Many of the participants in the dipnet fishery are ethnic and/or low-income. Anchorage Korean Church run busloads of parishoners to the river to dipnet. The Alaska Samoan community congregates on the beach there. There are a lot of Filipino and Asian fishermen as well.
It is rare to see anyone from any of those communities at an Alaska Fish Board meeting where commercial and sport fishermen, most of whom are Caucasian, are well represented. Commercial fishermen, with a lot of financial skin the game, manage several effective lobbying organizations.
Anglers are not as well-organized, but tourism businesses of late and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have increasingly entered the fray. The Mat-Su, like the Kenai, is home to many tourism businesses dependent on salmon, and they find themselves caught behind all of the commercial fisheries in the Inlet.
The more time commercial fishermen spend with their nets in the water trying to catch Kenai sockeye salmon, the more Susitna Valley sockeye and silver salmon those fishermen catch as well. Fisheries managers try to shift the commercial netters around to minimize the interception of Susitna fish, but the salmon sometimes don’t care.
They enter the Inlet in one big, mixed school of fish and because of that the management of the commercial fleet, which gets the first crack at the return, plays a big role in returns to every stream in the region.
The question of how to manage the fleets harvest is always a big topic for the Fish Board, and it is certain to be an issue of contentious debate when the Board convenes in Anchorage to discuss Upper Cook Inlet fisheries starting Feb. 23.
The issues facing the Board are not easy ones. Some Kenai commercial fishermen are dependent on the fishery for most of their annual income. Dipnet salmon are a vital food source to some low-income Alaskans and a big benefit of life in the cold, dark north for a lot of others. And Kenai sportfishing is an industry now valued at more than $100 million a year.
Everyone has valid arguments to offer on why it should get a bigger slice of a limited salmon pie. Commercial fishermen and anglers have been locked in a serious battle over Cook Inlet salmon for decades. Whether dipnetters angry about what happened this summer finally show up to enter the battle remains to be seen.