Commercial fishermen looking to cast their salmon-snagging gillnets wider in Cook Inlet appear to have won the hearts of the members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
The state regulatory authority was busy this week expanding both drift and set gillnet fisheries that target strong runs of sockeye salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasliof rivers, but also snag and kill significant numbers of late-run Kenai king salmon and northern Cook Inlet coho salmon or “silvers” as anglers usually call them.
Northern silver runs are already depressed. The Little Susitna River, one of the most popular salmon fishing streams in the Matanuska-Susitna valley, has failed to meet its spawning goals for five of the last 10 years.
Against that backdrop, Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials slammed the board action to expand commercial fishing as a serious blow to conservation.
“Concern over the efficiency of the drift fleet trumps our concern over depressed stocks,” Mac Minard, a former state fisheries biologist and consultant to the Mat-Su Fish Commission was quoted saying in a borough press release. “More troubling than this action is the justification for it.”
Board members expressed the opinion that the approximately 1,100 people who hold state limited entry permits to fish the Inlet haven’t been making enough money in recent years because of fishery restrictions aimed at putting more cohos into Mat-Su Valley streams, more late-run kings into the Kenai, and possibly some more sockeyes into the nets of Kenai personal-use dipnetters.
Minard challenged that assertion. Catches might have gone down since the Fish Board’s 2011 adoption of a “conservation corridor” to protect migrating northern coho, but the ex-vessel value for drift catches over the past six years includes four of the best paydays since the 1990s when salmon prices were at record highs.
Fishery economists believe the high prices will never be seen again. Alaska has largely lost the salmon market to farmed fish. Farmed salmon today own 70 percent of the market, and “salmon aquaculture is now the fastest growing food production system in the world,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Aquaculture operations continue to grow and expand as the industry steadily cleans up its environmental problems. Given the global economics of the situation, some – including a former chairman of the Board of Fisheries – have argued it is time for Alaska to begin considering a shift in some fisheries from maximum commercial catches to smaller commercial catches and strong in-river runs to boost Alaska tourism.
Commercial fishing is a no-growth business. The state capped the number of fishermen allowed in the 1970s. Alaska tourism, meanwhile, has grown steadily into what is now estimated to be a $2.42 billion per year industry. Studies in Alaska and across the country have shown that there is more money to be made in selling people the opporunity to fish than in selling them a fish.
But the board, in a rather odd vote, turned its back on both the conservation and economic arguments for a mid-Inlet “conservation corridor” for which the Mat-Su lobbied. The corridor was originally approved by a unamious vote of the seven-member Board, but three of four board members who voted for it in the past changed their votes on Thursday.
The vote to open the corridor passed 4 to 3.
Board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg, conceded the corridor appeared to be working, but he thought commercial fishermen were paying too high a price in lost catch.
“We’ve all been loaded on a train and headed back to 1994,” said Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Alaska Division of Sport Fisheries now a consultant for the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association. “This has the potential to break the back of the northern coho fishery on years of low abundance,” and many years of late have been low-abundance years.
Pretty much the last-entity standing in a state where a broad spectrum of angling interests used to get invovled in fishery conservation issues, the Kenai River association accussed the Fish Board and Gov. Bill Walker of trying to lay waste to the salmon resources of Cook Inlet.
“The direction that this new ‘neutral’ board thus far has taken has been to significantly roll back past regulatory measures adopted to provide reasonable opportunity to sport anglers, dip netters and the at-large sportfishing industry in Upper Cook Inlet,” association executive director Ricky Gease charged in a press release.
The Fish Board is on the weekend scheduled to begin hearing public testimony on proposed changes in that dipnet fishery, but it has already hamstrung dipnetters with lower escapement goals for the Kenai.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game fishery managers have been given orders to scale back the goals for in-river returns as projected sockeye run sizes decrease. The lower in-river goals are designed to maximize the commercial harvest offshore.
The “lower tier” goal, as it is now called, is expected to set this year’s Kenai sockeye escapement at 900,000 to 1.1 million fish, down from a ceiling of 1.4 million. With managers trying hit that mark, there are likely to be very few – if any – days this summer when monster schools of sockeye hit the Kenai.
Those sorts of days are what make or break the dipnet fishery. There were few of them last summer, and as a result the dipnet fishery had the lowest catch in eight years despite an increase in effort of about 6,000 dipnetters.
Most dipnetters seem unconcerned. Few appeared to testify before the board last weekend, and no one seems to have much of an idea as to what to expect for the coming weekend. The Kenai Peninsula’s Gary Barnes tried to start a social media firestorm this summer when it became clear how bad the dipnetting, but his Facebook page at the Alaska Outdoor Journal has been silent on the dipnet issue since the Fish Board started meeting in Anchorage.
Ken Frederico said he remains chairman of the Southcentral Alaska Dipnetters Association, but that it’s pretty much dead from lack of interest. The Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest representative of hunting and fishing interests, has largely abandoned the fishing arena. The Alaska Flyfishers appear so disinterested in what is happening in Cook Inlet that the Fish Board meeting isn’t even mentioned on their web page.
Much the same appears to be the case for the Alaska Sportfishing Association, once an active player in Alaska fishery politics. It has a dipnetting link on it webpage, but all that is there is some information on how to obtain permits. The page itself doesn’t appear to have been updated since September.
And the businesses with serious skin in the game – businesses like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops, which both have huge stores in Anchorage – appear little interested in whether their customers maintain oppotunities to catch fish. The Cabela’s calendar for March doesn’t mention the dipnet hearings, just as its calendar for February ignored the start of the Fish Board meeting.
Delaney, who once lead an agressive sportfishing division inside a state agency long dominated by commercial fishing interests, said he finds it hard to understand why anglers appear to have abandoned political involvement.
“It’s depressing,” he said.
Or at least it’s depressing to him. The Inlet’s commercial fishermen this week have cause for celebration.