Update: Just after this story posted, the catch numbers for Saturday’s commercial opening were reported. There was a catch of 150,120 sockeye on the day bringing the season total to 912,069 sockeye.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has started the 2017 Cook Inlet sockeye salmon season with a masterful performance.
Under orders to hold Kenai River sockeye salmon escapements through the commercial salmon fishery in the range of 900,000 to 1.1 million fish – with something closer to the former being clearly better than anything closer to the later – fishery managers have gone hard and early with openings in the commercial gillnet fisheries.
The tactic has worked almost flawlessly.
As of Sunday, fewer than 140,000 sockeye had made it past a sonar counter on the lower Kenai River. Meanwhile, the commercial catch since the opening of the season was about six times that number at almost 762,000 sockeye.
And commercial fishermen were out again on Saturday expecting to add tens of thousands more sockeye to their catch. A commercial opening off the mouth of the Kenai from noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday “was warranted in order to harvest sockeye salmon returning to the Kenai,” Fish and Game said in an emergency order.
Other emergency openings came last week to head off a surge of sockeye a test-boat fishery indicated was headed for the Kenai. Meanwhile, a regular opening on Thursday netted a total of 281,453 sockeye in the commercial drift and set net fisheries.
That harvest helped hold the next day’s in-river count of returning fish to 6,576 sockeye. The number climbed only slightly to 9,186 with commercial fishermen hard at it again on Saturday.
Personal-use dipnetters were starting to whine about the slow fishing with so few fish getting into the river, but they had no one to blame but themselves.
“Last year all over again,” Jason Armstrong lamented on the Facebook page of the Alaska Outdoor Journal.
Curtain of death
The dipnet catch on the Kenai – the most popular personal-use fishery in the state – was last year the lowest in eight years.
The reason was simple. State fisheries managers used the commercial fishery to limit big spikes in the number of salmon entering the stream about 150 road miles south of the Anchorage Metropolitan Statistical Area, a region that includes the Anchorage bedroom communities of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and is home to more than half of the population of the 49th state.
Thousands from that area every summer flood south along the Seward and Sterling highways to dipnet the Kenai. Twenty-six thousands of them last year caught 259,000 sockeye. The catch was half that of 2011, and significantly below the 426,000 average for this decade.
The catch of less than 10 fish per permit was also well less than half of the lowest limit of 25 fish. It was a small fraction of actual permit limits, which entitle dipnetters to 25 fish plus 10 more for each member of their household.
The Kenai supports the state’s biggest food fishery. Anthropologists Hannah Harrison from Norway and Philip Loring from Canada in 2016 examined the fishery as part of a study on local food security and found Kenai dipnetters a very diverse bunch.
They reported interviewing “71 personal-use fishers, 22 women and 49 men, over the course of 21 days. Of those fishers, 56 were from the Anchorage and (the) Mat-Su Valley area, nine were from the Kenai Peninsula, and six were from elsewhere in Alaska. Of the 71, 47 are Caucasian (two of which identified as Russian), eight are Alaska Native, three are Polynesian, five are Asian American, four are African-American, and four are Hispanic/Latino.”
The multi-cultural mix in the dipnet fishery is a Kenai norm, but the reason so many flock to the river is the same.
“All but a few respondents cited using their harvested fish for food as a primary reason for participating in the fishery,” Harrison and Loring wrote. “While some prioritized the recreational aspect of fishing first, most respondents said they were fishing to ‘fill the freezer’ and discussed the various ways by which they preserve salmon, such as smoking, freezing, and jarring or canning. Respondents indicated some degree of reliance on their fishing activities to supplement their diet through the winter months, ranging from ‘this is our meat for the winter’ to ‘I am on food stamps. This [fish] helps,’ to ‘we wouldn’t starve [without salmon] but we surely wouldn’t be able to afford eating as healthily without these fish.'”
After the mediocre to downright dismal fishing in 2016, many of these people were unhappy.
Much anger, no action
A lousy dipnet season, coming as it did prior to the every-other-year meeting of the Board of Fisheries to consider fishing regulations for Cook Inlet, was expected by some to lead to a broad outcry from dipnetters to change how Inlet sockeye are managed.
It didn’t happen.
Dipnetters complained that the commercial catch of 2.4 million sockeye divided among 1,000 to 1,100 limited-entry permit holders was down only 17 percent over the 10 year average while the dipnet catch was down more than 39 percent from the decade average, but the dipnetters did little more.
An expected turnout of large number of dipnetters to lobby the Board never materialized. The Samoans who organize to dipnet didn’t organize to pressure the board. Neither did the Koreans who sometimes arrive at the river by the van load, or the Japanese, the Hispanics, the Filipinos, the African-Americans or any other minority communities.
Instead, commercial fishermen with decades of experiencing in steering the board took the lead on the regulatory issues. Working through Kenai board member Robert Ruffner, they maneuvered to try to keep the 2017 dipnet catch as low as the 2016 catch.
And 2016 had provided the blueprint for how to do that: slow the entry of sockeye into the river.
When the salmon hit in waves of 40,000 to 50,000 or more fish, dipnetters do well. When the fish trickle in at the rate of less than 10,000 per day, dipnetters catch very few, and their catch-rate improves only slowly as the numbers increases toward the high end.
Given this, dipnetters have historically done well when the state is aiming for an in-river goal of about 1.4 million sockeye, and even better when the state is exceeding that number. The lower the goal, the worse they do. Ruffner convinced the Board to hold the goal to 900,000 to 1.1 million.
The idea was pitched as a compromise from the position of the powerful United Cook Inlet Drifters Association which has long pushed for a goal of 600,000 to 900,000. UCIDA argues that if more fish than that are allowed onto the spawning grounds the “rate of return” per spawner falls and commercial fishermen, over the long-term, lose money.
All about money
By managing for lower spawning escapements, commercial fishermen get a higher average catch in years of weak returns, and they lose little in the way of expanded catches when the ocean – which is the wild card in salmon survival – yields a big return.
Given that 2017 was forecast to be a relatively weak year for sockeye in the Inlet, Ruffner convined the board to do what it could to help commercial fishermen catch more fish offshore.
And in that moment, the die was cast for the in-river fisheries – both dipnet and rod-and-reel.
Neither can be expected to be much better this year than last because state fishery managers are doing their best to comply with the desires of the Board.
And though Ruffner led the Board’s decision-making, the Board’s true desires might have been best summed by chairman John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg.
And he is right about the minuscule change.
Taking a couple hundred thousand fish away from dipnetters and giving them to commercial fishermen who catch more than 2 million is a minuscule change. Two-hundred thousand is only about 12 percent of this year’s preseason forecast of a commercial catch of 1.7 million.
And if the catch goes higher, which it now looks like it might, the percentage only gets more minuscule. That some dipnetters might see this differently is understandable, but if they do, they have no one to blame but themselves.
As the anthropologists noted in their examination of the fishery, it exists in a “heavily politicized” environment where it is “a large but casual consumer of the Cook Inlet salmon resource compared to the smaller but professionalized and well-organized commercial and sport fishing user groups.”
And in American democratic politics, the reality is that unorganized and amateur interests are often overlooked in a political process that favors those who actively engage.
Any dipnetters sitting unhappy and fishless on the Kenai beaches reading this on their smart phone really have no one to blame but themselves for the lousy fishing. If there aren’t many fish, it’s because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is doing a superb job of what the politicians directed it to do – slow the entry of sockeye into the Kenai to avoid exceeding that 900,000 to 1.1 million goal.