Once revered for world-leading skills at managing wild salmon, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game today finds itself under attack as incompetent as the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council begins court-ordered consideration of salmon management in the federal waters of Cook Inlet.
The most powerful commercial fishing organization in the 49th state’s most populated region says its members have been robbed of $33 million over the past six years thanks to state mismanagement of salmon, and they want the federal government to make things right.
The United Cook Inlet Drift Association forced the management issue into federal court hoping to get its nets around more salmon. It now accuses Fish and Game’s Commercial Fisheries Division of grossly mismanaging runs bound for the Kenai, Kasilof and Susitna rivers for years. The accusations came in a 18-page letter to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Neither the director of the state commercial fish division nor the regional supervisor for commercial fisheries returned calls asking for a response.
UCIDA wants the Council, a federal entity, to oversee state management of salmon in the Inlet. Prior to statehood, the federal government managed all fisheries in Alaska, but when Alaska became a state the feds ceded management authority as in other states.
Alaska salmon runs were at that time struggling. The state rebuilt them to record levels, but along the way the politics of fish changed.
The U.S. Congress in 1976 passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which extended U.S. jurisdiction over fisheries management to 200 miles beyond the coast.
With passage of that act, the National Marine Fisheries Service became heavily involved in regulating offshore fisheries, but in general left inshore fisheries for the states to manage. In 2011, the North Pacific Council, which sets the rules the Fisheries Service implements, signed off on a management scheme that gave the state authority over salmon in federal waters inside Cook Inlet, inside the Alaska Panhandle, and offshore from the Copper River.
UCIDA challenged that action in court, arguing Magnuson-Stevens required federal managers to come up with their own management plans for federal waters. First a U.S. District Court and then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the UCIDA view.
As a result, the Council finds itself wrestling with how to write federally required “fishery management plans” for the three areas even as everyone waits on a state request that the Supreme Court take up the case. That the high court will take the case appears unlikely.
More likely is the possibility the Council could take the easy way out on the issue and simply close all three federal areas to salmon fishing. That has sent a ripple of fear through the famed Copper River salmon fishery as the season for the harvest of Alaska’s most valuable salmon rapidly approaches.
Much of the Cook Inlet and Southeast fisheries takes place in state waters inside three miles from shore. A federal closure in the Inlet and Southeast would not have major impacts. But much of the Copper River fishery operates in a zone from three to 20 miles offshore. A closure there could be chaotic.
Tangled up in sockeye
All of this was started in motion by UCIDA’s belief that salmon managers under the direction of the Alaska Board of Fisheries have been letting too many salmon return to spawning streams.
“By one estimate, there has been ‘a 51 percent decline since 1981 in the commercial catch of sockeye salmon’ in Cook Inlet,” Jason Morgan, an attorney for UCIDA, wrote in the letter sent the Council earlier this month. “The State of Alaska’s management decisions have played a significant role in the decline of these fisheries in Cook Inlet.”
Morgan contends state mismanagement has deprived UCIDA members of 18.5 million pounds of sockeye worth an estimated $32,964,000. The money is at the heart of the issue.
UCIDA represents the interests of fewer than 600 fishermen who own and fish limited entry permits that have historically netted them 56 percent of the millions of sockeye caught in the Inlet every summer. Most of the rest of the harvest has gone to competing commercial, set gillnet fishermen.
If UCIDA’s numbers are correct, commercial fishermen have been robbed of about $55,000 each since 2011, and the ripple effects, UCIDA claims, have been large.
“These reduced returns and foregone harvest have devastated the commercial fishing industry and the communities of Cook Inlet,” Morgan wrote. “For example, in 2015, the state’s management decisions left nearly a million sockeye unharvested. Not coincidentally, that was the same year the Great Pacific Seafoods Company went bankrupt, taking with it 300 jobs and a payroll of over $2 million. Many other processors in Cook Inlet have suffered similar fates, unwilling or unable to operate in this unstable regulatory environment.”
At the time Great Pacific filed for bankruptcy, Undercurrent News, a website specializing in coverage of the commercial fishing industry, cited a U.S. embargo imposed on Russian seafood as the main reason for the company going out of business.
“There was a significant drop in the price of roe due to the Russian embargo and the combination of the Japanese yen’s valuation and Japanese demand,” a statement released by the company at the time said. “This reduction in roe price was a serious blow to our ability to generate sufficient cash to continue to operate.
“Our costs increased (too) due to the increase in the minimum wage and the elimination of the J-1 program.”
Most of Great Pacific’s employees were students working seasonally in Alaska. The “J-1 program” is an exchange program that provides visas for college students from foreign nations to “come to the United States to share their culture and ideas with people of the United States through temporary work and travel opportunities,” according to the U.S. Department of State.
The program was stopped because of reports of businesses taking advantage of foreign students. Great Pacific in 2014 complained to the Alaska Journal of Commerce that without the cheap labor provided by J-1 workers its fish processing operations were “a lot more expensive than in years past.”
Reporter Molly Dischner noted a shortage of workers – not a shortage of fish – was a statewide problem in 2014.
“…About 25,000 individuals are hired by the seafood processing industry each year. In 2011 and 2012, approximately 70 percent of the workforce came from outside of Alaska,” she reported. “Pacific Seafood Processing Association Vice President Dennis Phelan estimated Alaska processors will operate with about 300 to 500 fewer workers than would be ideal this summer.”
Because of the worker shortage, some processing plants put fishermen on limits more restrictive than those imposed by state salmon managers.
Too many salmon
Whether the fault of the processors with too little capacity or state fisheries biologists mismanaging, UCIDA’s main argument to the Council is that too many salmon escape fishermen to clog Alaska streams and rivers and damage future production.
Morgan wrote that this “over-escapement” is a “major problem.”
“…It is well established that the over-escapement of sockeye in these systems leads to decreased future sockeye returns,” he said.
That conclusion traces its history back to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the nation’s largest tanker disaster. Oil escaping Prince William Sound fouled much of Alaska’s north gulf coast and led to the shut down of many commercial fisheries. Those in Cook Inlet were among them.
As a result, about 1.4 million sockeye escaped into the Kenai that year. The return came in the wake of another 1.4 million escapement in 1987 due to a smaller oil spill that limited commercial fisheries in the Inlet.
Scientists later concluded the back-to-back returns of so many salmon might have increased the competition for food among fry, resulting in smaller fry with lower survival odds when they eventually went to sea. But the scientists cautioned that “additional research is needed to examine the tradeoffs between spawning escapement, juvenile sockeye growth, adult return, and maximum sustained.”
The additional research has produced a mixed bag.
Canadian scientists looked at 21 different sockeye runs in British Columbia in 2004 and concluded that “there is no evidence of catastrophic decrease or collapse in recruitment per spawner at the highest spawning stocks.”
But they added that commercial fishermen do have a point in “expressing concerns about ‘waste of fish’ in the sense of spawning efficiency. It remains to be seen (however) whether or not the high escapements have triggered dispersal and recolonization of habitats that would ultimately result in higher total production, and/or that there are significant ecosystem benefits not assessed in these data.”
Within the Kenai River system, there is some debate on most of the latter points. Recent studies have made the picture appear more complicated rather than less so.
“Questions about age structure in Skilak Lake, carrying capacity in Kenai Lake, and the influence of large escapements on juvenile sockeye salmon survival should be further studied and documented,” state biologists Robert DeCino and Mark Willette wrote in a 2014 report. “Questions remain today on the patchiness of juvenile sockeye salmon distributions. Not only are the juvenile sockeye salmon potentially affected by increased escapement levels, but resident predator populations of rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and lake trout may have also been affected with possibly wide-ranging ecological effects not previously seen.”
The Kenai today supports a world-class rainbow fishery that has helped spur a boom in tourism businesses around the communities of Cooper Landing and Sterling. Some there believe large numbers of spawing sockeye have helped boost the populations of trout and Dolly Varden by providing them more food in the form of eggs, rotting carcasses, fry and smolt.
At one time, commercial fishermen in Alaska feared this same possibility. In territorial days, a bounty was paid for the tails of Dolly Varden in an attempt to reduce their numbers.
“USBF (U.S. Bureau of Fisheries) employee Dennis Winn initiated a bounty system in 1920 at Bristol Bay, Alaska, where charr predation on juvenile sockeye seemed to be especially destructive,” according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) history. “Payments varied from 2.5 to 5 cents per charr killed, with funds coming from the salmon canneries, Territory of Alaska, and U.S. Government. The federal Works Progress Administration funded the bounty program during the Great Depression of the 1930s as a way to boost the finances of local citizens.”
As of this writing, no one has suggested a bounty on rainbow trout and Dolly Varden to increase the productivity of the Kenai River, but such an idea would not be out of line with attempts to turn the river into a sockeye-salmon farm designed purely to maximize harvest in the commercial fishery.
The UCIDA document gives no indication other fisheries exist in the river. It makes no mention of the personal-use dipnet fishery that harvests 300,000 to 500,000 sockeye per year, and its only mention of the sport fishery is to complain that it doesn’t catch enough coho salmon to raise the “exploitation rate” on that species to the maximum possible.
But the paper makes serious claims as to over-escapement.
“During the last 10 years, the Kenai River exceeded the in-river goal eight times, 12 times since the year 2000, including major over-escapements the last six years in a row,” Morgan wrote.
Begging to differ
The latter claim touched off retired state fisheries biologist Ken Tarbox of Soldotna. Tarbox once managed the Cook Inlet commercial fishery. He was involved in the over-escapement studies. And he has long been eyed suspiciously by Alaska anglers and personal-use dipnetters as an ally of commercial fishermen.
But some of the claims now being made by UCIDA struck a nerve and he lashed out on an Alaska Outdoors Directory forum where he posts as “Nerka.” The state fisheries biologist now running Cook Inlet might not be talking, but Tarbox didn’t mince words.
“I just finished reading UCIDA’s paper and am so pissed I am having a hard time being civil,” he wrote. “Calling the State management ‘gross mismanagement’ and using Susitna River sockeye commercial management to claim there is more harvestable surplus in Susitna is a total fabrication. Not using the actual spawning numbers for Kenai and claiming unharvested fish is another one.
“Unbelievable. The lawyer even cites UCIDA authored papers to reference his position. No offense to the authors but they wrote a paper that is biased and inaccurate on the status of Susitna and so now the authors (one of which is a UCIDA fisherman who has no fishery management training) become the experts? Wow.”
Tarbox also went back and cataloged the differences between desired Kenai escapement goals and actual Kenai escapement back to the year 2000. The returns ranged from 94,000 fish under the goal in 2008 to 527,000 fish over the goal in 2006.
“…For this discussion, these would be considered MSY (maximum sustained yield) goals for the federal discussion,” he wrote. “If you add the plus and minus up the lost harvest has been around 100 (100,000) sockeye per year which is less than 10% of the upper spawning goal range. In a mixed stock fishery getting this close is pretty good.
“UCIDA fails to understand that the in-river harvests have increased and making goals is easier because of it: More fishing power in-river to reduce management limitations in the mixed stock fishery. Anyway, UCIDA is going to go down in flames if they keep up their present positions. These data took me 10 mins to generate and refute their gross mismanagement position.”
Tarbox argues UCIDA is wrong about the environmental issues, but there is no arguing it is wrong about the short-term economic issue. UCIDA is wholly right when it claims more fish in-river means less money in the pockets of its members.
In a perfect world, the commercial fishery might indeed have lost $33 million in potential income over the past six years. But the issues are bigger than UCIDA’s loss. They go to what the Kenai watershed might have gained in productivity from all those sockeye, and how the economics shook out for other users.
If the extra fish in the Kenai cost the commercial fishery $33 million but generated $100 million in business for the in-river sport fishery that Tarbox notes has grown steadily over the decades, UCIDA’s view of “too many” sockeye in the river might be -in the broader economic view of the entire state economy – “just the right number” of sockeye in the river.
And the overall data would indicate the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has actually done an excellent job of managing Cook Inlet sockeye fisheries, boosting the annual, sockeye catch from 1.3 million per year in the 1970s to 4.4 million in the 1980s.
The catch peaked at almost 9.5 million in 1987. Five years later, it hit 9.1 million. But those harvests were anomalies; they were not sustainable.
Morgan notes that “the 2016 harvest was 23% less than the 1966-2015 average,” but fails to note the catch of 3.1 million sockeye is still double what was being caught in the in the 1970s.
Not to mention that what makes an average the average is the occurrence of numbers on both sides of the median. The 3.1 million last year wasn’t great – only about half the 6 million of 2004 – but it was almost twice as good as the 1.6 million of 1998.
What has really changed, however, is how the fish are allocated, as the state’s annual management report for 2016 shows. In 1996, the commercial fisheries took about 86 percent of the sockeye harvest. By 2015, that was down to about 72 percent with various in-river sport and Alaska-only, personal-use fisheries splitting a harvest of more than 1 million of the fish.
Commercial fishermen have legitimate reasons to complain. Times change and change is hard. But their problem is not with mismanagement by the state; their problem is with other Alaskans wanting a share of the action.