As a blunt reminder of the value of salmon to all Alaskans, businessmen and women from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough paraded before the Alaska Board of Fisheries on Saturday to talk business.
Money and jobs have always been the rallying cries of commercial fishermen who catch the majority of salmon that make their way into Cook Inlet, the long fiord at the front door of Anchorage. And government, both state and federal, has long been receptive to their financial pleas.
When weak king salmon runs in 2012 forced restrictions that put Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen on the beach, then Gov. Sean Parnell asked for a federal disaster declaration. When it came, the Peninsula Clarion reported, “an estimated 443 permit holders from Cook Inlet’s eastside setnet fishery” vied for $4.6 million in aid.
No government entity, however, has jumped in to bail out Mike Hudson, the owner of 3 Rivers Fly & Tackle in Wasilla, even though his business has in recent years been devastated by weak salmon returns linked in part to how Inlet salmon are managed.
Hudson, a 30-year resident of “The Valley,” as Alaskans call the Mat-Su, has been in business for 23 years. He grew 3 Rivers from nothing to a business with 12 employees, two shops and an annual gross of about $1 million, he told the board.
It is now down to one shop, two part-time employees and a gross closer to $250,000.
“I’m here to ask the board for help,” Hudson said. “This is a very clear picture of the Mat-Su economy.”
Like others before and after, he asked the Board to come up with a plan “to share stocks on a more reasonable basis.”
Tail shakes dog
For better or worse, the Mat-Su finds itself at the end of a gauntlet of fisheries that stretch from Homer, a port city on Kachemak Bay, north for 110 miles to Anchorage.
About halfway between the two cities, the Kenai River flows west from the Kenai Mountains into the Inlet. Split by two massive lakes – 25,000-acre Skilak, the seventh largest lake in the state and 14,000-acre Kenai, the ninth largest – the fast-flowing, glacial river system is prime habitat for sockeye salmon.
To harvest the bulk of them, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game oversees a sizeable commercial fishery in the Inlet.
The problem for the Mat-Su is that Kenai sockeye aren’t alone in the Inlet. In the swirling, tidal waters of one of the state’s most dynamic water bodies, the Kenai fish end up mingling with Susitna drainage sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon to create one massive, mixed-stock.
Fishing on mixed stock fisheries (MSF) has generally fallen out of favor with fisheries managers as salmon management has become more sophisticated in modern times.
“While MSFs need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, there should be a general presumption against operating such fisheries unless they can be shown not to contravene basic conservation policies,”fisheries consultants for the European Commission have observed. “Exceptions might be permitted it there is an essential socio-economic requirement that has been clearly identified, as long as no stocks exploited by the fishery are under threat of serious depletion.”
Cook Inlet is one of those exceptions, in part, strangely enough, because of competing mixed stock fisheries. Management of the Susitna-Kenai fishery is complicated by a mixed-stock fishery near the mouth of the world-famous Kenai itself, where commercial setnets intended to primarily catch sockeye salmon catch a significant number of Chinook.
Chinook are the Kenai’s big money fish. They helped spawn a lot of tourism businesses, though many of them are, like Hudson’s, now struggling because of weak returns of salmon.
Fisheries managers trying to maximize commercial harvests as they are legally directed to do while trying to protect these other business interests as best they can are faced with tough decisions when the sockeye swarm the Inlet in July:
Should they hit the fish hard with the drift gillnet fleet and risk catching a significant number of salmon bound for dozens of Susitna tributaries, or hold off the drift fleet and try to catch more with setnets that pick up Kenai kings as by-catch.
An obvious solution
Part of the simplest solution to that problem would be to up the spawning goal for Kenai sockeye. The higher that goal – now set at 700,000 to 1.4 million late-run sockeye – the less fishing, in general, with commercial gillnets of any kind.
Commercial fishermen obviously don’t like this idea. The direct result is a smaller sockeye harvest and that hits them square in the pocket-book. Both setters and drifters have collectively hit back at the idea for years with the charge that the Kenai is already suffering from “over-escapement.”
“Escapement” is the term fisheries managers use to describe salmon spawners. It is the number of fish escaping fishermen to reach the spawning grounds and lay their eggs. Over-escapement is premised on the idea that if too many fish spawn, the system becomes choked with young salmon and large numbers die in the competition for a limited supply of food.
The argument is a slightly misleading on the Kenai where the “optimum escapement goal” has been set at 700,000 to 1.4 million sockeye, but ignores a major, in-river sport fishery that some years can catch up to 400,000 of those same fish after they are counted.
Theoretically, if managers shot for the lower end of the OEG and allowed only 700,000 spawners to escape commercial nets, they could end up with as few as 300,000 spawners, although that is unlikely because the angler harvest in the river is density dependent.
Anglers do well when the salmon migrate upstream in big, concentrated schools. When sockeye are few and scattered, anglers do poorly.
An escapement of 700,000 would be almost certain to cause the angler harvest to plummet while an escapement of 1.8 million or more would likely result in an angler catch of near 400,000 and a real escapement near the top of the goal at 1.4 million.
Commercial fishermen, however – already plagued by a market steadily shifting away from Alaska salmon to farm-raised fish – would pay a price in the form of a lower catch if the in-river goal was raised, and though the higher escapement would invariably help Kenai tourists business considerably and the Mat-Su a little, it wouldn’t solve all of the Valley’s problems, which is why there was a lot of talk about a central Inlet “corridor” on Saturday.
Mat-Su tourism businesses and anglers see a central inlet conservation corridor as a lifesaver. Commercial drift fishermen see it as a harvest killer. And the data is less than fully conclusive either way.
“We can put all kinds of fish in the river, but it doesn’t matter if they’re eaten by (northern) pike,” Kaslif drift netter Dyer Van Devere told the board. But there’s no indication the corridor has “put all kinds of fish in the river.”
As Howard Delo, a retired state biologist turned outdoor writer for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman noted, the “preliminary fish return data for the (first) two years indicated that improvements in the numbers of northern bound sockeye were inconclusive, but that returns of coho were significantly improved….(But) in the world of fisheries management, two years of data can give an indication of a trend but is hardly a definitive, ‘set-in-stone’ fact.”
The next couple years showed further improvements – the coho harvest for anglers in the Valley has climbed from only about 30,000 in 2011 to 60,000 in 2015 – but the picture is complicated. In 2015, the sockeye run to the Kenai was late, which limited driftnet fishing in the Inlet. That probably allowed a lot of Susitna-bound coho to get through.
As a result of the way commercial fisheries were managed in 2015, a salmon harvest usually split almost 60-40 between commercial drift netters and commercial setnetters flipped and went 62 percent to the setnetters. With the catch split this way, one would expect a bigger return of coho to the Valley, corridor or no corridor, because the setnets catch almost none of those fish.
On the other hand, the 2015 season pretty well underlines the clear correlation between heavy driftnet fishing and low MatSu coho returns. The less commercial drifters fish on the other hand, the more coho reach the Valley.
Unfortunately, no one willingly wants to fish less. Everyone wants more.
And over the years, commercial fishermen have received more. They have been the Inlet’s big winners as the science of fisheries management has improved.
In the decade after Statehood, the commercial fishery had an average, annual harvest of 1.3 million sockeye – the money fish. This year, it had a so-so season and caught about 2.4 million or about 85 percent more.
Since the 1970s, better fisheries management has increased the annual yield of the Inlet by around 3.3 million sockeye per year. Some of this increase has gone to anglers and dipnetters, but more than 70 percent of the increase has ended up in the hands of about 1,300 commercial fishermen who benefitted from a 1973, voter-approved “Limited Entry” law that led to a state-sanctioned, commercial fishing cartel.
They think they should be allowed to keep the gain. Many others say no.
More than 35 years ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game suggested these 1,300 fishermen were probably too many for the Inlet.
“Based on long-term historical catch averages, Cook Inlet natural salmon runs make up about 5 percent of the statewide production capability. By comparison, the number of commercial fishermen holding entry permits to fish in Cook Inlet is about 14 percent of the statewide total for salmon net fishing,” the agency reported.
Inlet fish wars were already brewing then. Given the disproportionately high number of commercial fishermen in the Inlet, and the fact “nearly half of all Alaskan recreational anglers fish in Cook Inlet, (and) the Cook Inlet basin contains about half of the statewide human population, with the bulk of it in the Anchorage area,” the authors of the report predicted continuing struggles between the haves and the have-nots.
A largely new Fish Board is getting a taste of the breadth of these disagreements.
And with Alaska sliding into a significant recession, Mat-Su Valley residents were Saturday in a way positing the big question some Fish Board is going to have to face some day:
How does the state alter management practices to get the maximum value out of every Cook Inlet salmon for the benefit of all Alaskans?
Hudson said he’d done his own,economic analysis and concluded that “a king salmon in the MatSu Valley is worth about $2,500.” A fair share of that money might well go into the pockets of people who don’t even fish: rental car agents, baristas pulling espressos at drive throughs, hotel staff, airport employees, shuttle bus drivers, restaurant waiters and more.
Some commercial fishermen have recognized this spending and observed it would make a lot more economic sense for most tourists to just buy their fish. And they’re right about that. The price paid commercial fishermen for Cook Inlet Chinook last summer was about $2.50 per pound. A tourist could have bought a 30-pounder off an Inlet fisherman and saved thousands of dollars.
But it’s hard to make money by trying to force markets to do what you want them to do. You make money, and build an economy, by supplying the goods and services markets want.
A lot of people still want to come to Alaska to fish, Amber Allen of Miller’s Riverboat Service in Houston, AK told the board. But to get their business you need to offer them a realistic opportunity to catch a fish. And that’s hard to do in the Valley at this time.
“We need sustainable, more predictable fishing,” she said.
The board will have its work cut out in trying to supply that.