After the smallest Kenai River dipnet catch in eight years, there are hints that the little people of Alaska’s urban core might at last be arriving at the realization that they are the only ones who can protect their interest in Alaska salmon for dinner.
A message populating on social media over the weekend was calling dipnetters to a “meeting at Cabela’s, Anchorage sunday evening from 6 to 7 concerning dipnetting and BOF. Pass it on.”
BOF is the acronym for the Board of Fisheries for the state of Alaska. It is the entity that sets seasons and catch limits for commercial, sport and personal-use fisheries around the state. It will later this month take up the issue of management of Cook Inlet salmon, an always contentious matter in which the interests of average Alaskan fishermen and women have historically proven secondary.
To a large degree, fishery managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say, this is simply unavoidable.
Commercial fishermen working offshore in the Inlet get the first crack at returning salmon, and the commercial fishery is the big dog in the management scheme. Salmon managers use it to regulate the numbers of salmon getting into streams all around the region with the intent being to maximize the catch while still meeting spawning goals.
It is a task easier said than done.
The salmon of the Inlet are a mixed stock of sockeyes, cohoes, Chinooks, pinks and chums. The commercial fishery is focused on the first, but it’s harvest is far from selective. Gillnet fisheries, the predominant commercial fishery in the Inlet, snag by the gills whatever hits the net.
If nets fishing with the intent of catching sockeye instead catch a lot of coho bound for Susitna River tributaries, anglers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough pay the price. If the nets are too efficient in their harvest of Kenai sockeye in July, dipnetters take the hit as they did this summer when the dipnet catch dropped to 259,000 sockeye – less than half of the fish dipnetters caught in 2011.
The Inlet’s 1,100 commercial fishermen caught about 2.4 million sockeye. The commercial catch fell 17 percent short of the 10-year average for the commercial fishery, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It was not a great year for commercial fishermen, but still significantly better than for dipnetters.
Many of the 26,000 dipnetters left with small catches ended the season angry. Whether that means anything remains to be seen.
Dipnetters are the most visible and least powerful group of fishermen in the Cook Inlet salmon allocation scrum.
“Long handled nets in hand, hordes of anglers prepare to storm Kenai beaches,” ADN.com, the state’s largest news organization, headlined in 2015. The headline had it wrong. There is no angling associated with scooping salmon out of the turbid glacier waters of the Kenai with an oversize landing net attacked to a long pole, but the story below the headline had it right.
“Soon the beaches will run red with blood,” it said.
The dipnet fishery is a spectacle. Where 1,100 Cook Inlet commercial fishermen disappear into the vastness of the Inlet to kill fish, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of average Alaskans with dipnets congregate at the mouth of the Kenai.
The scene has been fairly described as a salmon “Woodstock.”
Traffic backs up on the north beach access road. Tents blanket the shoreline at the river’s mouth. Lines form at the port-a-potties. Spectators gather on the bluff above to watch a sometimes salmon massacre that lasts for about three weeks in July.
Commercial fishermen, by and large, loathe the dipnet fishery, which attracts a lot of minorities. The Samoan, Korean and Filipino communities are all major presences on the beach.
Those same people are seldom seen at BOF meetings. But then, no dipnetterers have much of a history of making their concerns known to the BOF.
The South Central Alaska Dipnetters Association, which was occasionally active early in the decade, has all but slipped from view.
“I’m just about the last one standing,” president Ken Frederico of Wasilla said Friday. “Hunters, they all band together and put money in” to fund lobbying.
Dipnetters, he said, seem to think the political system will take care of them because it’s only “fair.”
Unfortunately, things don’t work that way. Dipnetters already have the deck stacked against them going into the 2017 BOF meeting later this month.
Fish and Game staff has proposed reducing the size of the area open to dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai, and commercial fishing interests – which always turn out in force at BOF meetings – might have found a winning strategy for choking off the dipnet fishery.
No fish; no good fishing
Commercial interests which once focused without success on trying to reduce catch limits for dipnetters have finally recognized there’s a better way to take a bite out of that fishery:
Slow the entry of sockeyes into the Kenai.
That is what happened last summer. Dipnetting is best when the mouth of the river is plugged with salmon. Fifty-thousand sockeyes per day is something of a magic number. At returns that size or above, the fishing is generally fast and furious. Below that level, the fishing slows down quickly.
There were only three days above 50,000 in 2016, and then just barely above. And the first of them came unexpectedly early in the season. Commercial interests would benefit most from no 50,000 days, and the way to achieve that is to push spawning goals lower.
Echoing the pitch of commercial interests, the Alaska Journal of Commerce suggested in November that over-escapement is the cause for a projected weak return of sockeye next summer. As a basis for this assertion, the newspaper cited state biologists who said they can’t rule anything out, and then turned to Dave Martin, the president of the Cook Inlet Drift Association, the regions’ most powerful fishing lobby.
“You keep grossly overescaping the systems then it’ll produce smaller returns,” he told reporter DJ Summers. “If we managed the fishery scientifically, we wouldn’t have these ups and downs.”
Escapement is the number of salmon escaping the nets of commercial fishermen to get into a river. The scientifically established, optimum escapement goal (OEG) for late-run Kenai sockeye – the fish commercial fishermen, dipnetters and anglers all want – is 700,000 to 1.4 million, according to Fish and Game.
Just under 1.4 million sockeyes were reported to have escaped the nets of commercial fishermen and dipnetters last year, but escapement isn’t so easily measured on the Kenai because the state’s largest sport fishery exists upstream of the salmon counters.
That fishery has caught 400,000 to 500,000 sockeye per season in recent years, according to Fish and Game figures. Deduct that catch from the 2016 return and the actual number of sockeyes escaping all fishermen, and thus surviving to spawn, drops to 1 million or less last year.
Exact sport catch figures for 2016 aren’t in yet. Anglers reported catching 438,000 sockeye from the Kenai in 2015. That would have dropped that years real escapement from a reported 1.7 million to less than 1.3 million.
In fact, once Kenai escapements are corrected to account for the sport catch that removes spawners, the Kenai doesn’t appear to have come close to exceeding the upper end of it escapement goal in the past five years, but looks to have come close to missing the lower end in 2013 when the actual escapement would have totaled only about 862,000.
Overescapement has been a documented problem in some Alaska salmon streams. A team of Fish and Game biologists in 2007 reported that “for 37 of the 40 stocks we reviewed, overescapement occurred at least once in a recent 15 year period.”
For the purposes of the study, overescapement was defined simply as a number of spawners greater that the calculated escapement goal. The paper did not delve into the accuracy of the goals, which are always somewhat arbitrary.
What it did note was that “although overescapement was easy to detect, the biological and fishery-related effects of overescapement were more difficult to detect and assess.”
The scientists found no fishery collapses tied to over-escapement.
“As seen in the review of salmon stocks in British Columbia, we did not observe long-term stock collapse of any of the 40 stocks that could be attributed to overescapement,” they reported, although they did find three stocks in which the “returns per spawner fell below replacement for two to five years following consecutive overescapements that were greater than twice the upper escapement goal range.”
The upper goal for the Kenai is 1.4 million. Twice that would be 2.8 million, but considering that the goal is deflated by the failure to calculate mortality due to angler harvest, the real number for doubling would be more like 3. 3 million.
The Kenai has never seen that sort of escapement, but for the years 2004 to 2006 it averaged escapements of close to 2 million late-run sockeye per year. The big returns fueled a robust scientific argument about overescapement that continues to this day.
Commercial fishermen, who have big financial interests in the Inlet fisheries, are well versed in this debate. And dipnetters?
In a complicated world, a lot of them count on government to look out for the interests of everyman. There are those now trying to pass the warning that democratic governments often don’t care. They are reactionary. They respond to the entities making the most noise.
Someone, Frederico said, needs to whip up that noise if dipnetters hope to get treated fairly by the BOF.