All it took was a few days of a Cook Inlet free of gillnets, and sockeye salmon were flooding the Kenai River.
Since Tuesday, about 300,000 have stormed past the fish-counting sonar downstream from the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna. The river upstream from there is today chock-a-block full of salmon. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is back on schedule to meet its goal of a minimum of 900,000 in-river past the sonar.
All of that is good news for anglers; great news for commercial fishermen who put their nets back in the water today at 9 a.m.; and not-so-good news for working-stiff, personal-use dipnetters headed for or already at the mouth of the Kenai this weekend.
The timing of the sockeye surge to the Kenai couldn’t have worked out much worse for folks with weekday jobs. Dipnetters able to sneak away to the Kenai at midweek were slaying the fish, but despite what appears plenty more sockeye inbound, the commercial opening today will slow the dipnet fishery on the last weekend of the dipnet season.
The only question is by how much.
During the last opening way back on July 20, commercial nets killed 142,000 sockeye. The results showed in-river. The drift and set gillnets aren’t quite the “curtain of death” some dipnetters and anglers like to claim, but they are deadly efficient at cutting off the flood of sockeye into the Kenai.
Over the course of the three days following that commercial opening, the highest sonar count was 27,864 on Sunday. Fishery managers began to worry they might not meet the in-river goal of 900,000 fish.
That led to the shutdown of the commercial nets, and there was even talk of restricting in-river rod-and-reel fishermen.
Lots of fish
“In-season information indicates sockeye salmon run timing is two or more days late,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game emergency order opening the commercial fishery said. “Based on this (and 581,000 sockeye in-river), final passage projections of sockeye salmon in the Kenai River are expected to exceed 1 million fish.”
The Department manages the fishery under orders from an Alaska Board of Fisheries composed of seven political appointees. The board has dictated the priority use of Cook Inlet salmon in July is commercial harvest.
The Board, which reviewed Cook Inlet fisheries this spring, was presented options for increasing the in-river goal for the Kenai, but board member Robert Ruffner from Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula convinced fellow board members to leave the goals unchanged.
And the Board, in recognizing a range of 900,000 to 1.1 million sockeye in-river this year, made clear its preference for the lower number rather than the higher number. The Board actively moved away from the idea of putting more salmon upriver not only in the Kenai, but the Susitna-Yentna river drainage at the head of Cook Inlet, and structured regulations accordingly.
As Board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fishermen from Petersburg, observed, “(these changes) will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
The statement was a pitch from an appointee of Gov. Bill Walker to his constituency to push his reappointment to the Board through the Legislature, and no one on the Board said anything. The pitch worked, too.
Jensen was reappointed, although Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, feigned opposition. Gara opposed Jensen’s reappointment, and then withdrew his opposition.
“I feel a number of actions this February endangered a whole run of fish, and I feel another decision made it clear that all fishermen, including the over 600,000 Alaskans who don’t own a commercial fishing permit, don’t have the same rights as others,” public radio’s KMXT in Kodiak quoted Gara saying.
Gara represents Downtown and parts of Midtown Anchorage. A lot of his constituents dipnet or rod-and-reel fish the Kenai, but not many of them vote fish. Commercial fishermen vote fish and make the corresponding political contributions.
After his little speech, Gara voted to reappoint Jensen as did 47 other state senators and representatives, many of them from Anchorage. Only 12 members of the House and Senate voted against Jensen, most of them from Matanuska-Susitna Borough districts.
As the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s powerful commercial fishing lobby explained to legislators in a letter backing the Jensens’ reappointment to the Board, he “is currently completing his fifth term on the board….As the longest-serving member of the Board of Fisheries, Mr. Jensen can help provide valuable institutional knowledge to the process.”
The “institutional knowledge” backed by UFA is the idea that the 1973 limited entry act Alaska voters approved with an amendment to the constitution created an entitlement. The act limited the intense competition in previously wide-open fisheries and thus made it easier for state fisheries managers to control harvests.
Largely as a result, but with some help from restrictions on high-seas salmon harvests and a warming climate, Alaska commercial salmon catches that had averaged about 40 million fish per year from the 1950s through the early 1970s under first federal and then state fisheries management began to boom.
By the end of the 1980s, according to a history written by fisheries biologists with Fish and Game, the decadal average stood at 120 million fish per year. By the end of the 1990s, the annual average had increased to about 175 million. Harvests have continued at just slightly above that level on average ever since.
Nearly all of the annual increase of 135 to 140 million salmon over historic, pre-Limited Entry norms has gone to the commercial fishermen who harvest about 98 percent of the salmon caught in the 49th state with the rest split between anglers, subsistence fishermen and personal-use dipnetters.
All of the latter have at times complained about the distribution of the catch, but few have done much more than complain. Some, recognizing that the opening of the Cook Inlet commercial fishery was going to slow the dipnet fishery, were complaining again on Friday.
“They have again put it to the dipnet people and opened up the commercial fishing,” dipnetter Michelle Stevens messaged craigmedred.news after the news of today’s commercial opening from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. was announced. ” I am going to start a war.”
It is an empty threat.
The history of Alaska in-river fisheries and in-river fishermen is that they are all talk and no action. They lack for organization and get easily lost in the weeds of the Inlet’s complicated fisheries.
Commercial fishermen headed out into Cook Inlet today were sure to notice the mobs of dipnetters lining the beaches at the mouth of the river, but if history is precedent, the fishermen who make money off Cook Inlet salmon have little reason to worry.
Sport and personal-use fishermen have a tiny influence on the process, and the practical fact is that without the Cook Inlet commercial fishery, the Kenai would be awash in sockeye. There is no doubt a healthy commercial harvest is good for everyone.
Considerable scientific debate surrounds the issue of “over-escapement” – the cluster of too many salmon on the spawning beds leading to a decline in production – but there is agreement on a theoretical upper limit at which spawning salmon overwhelm the ability of the available habitat to support their young.
The best evidence, in the view of Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is that the optimum spawning goal for the Kenai goes up to about 1.4 million sockeye. In a 2016 review of goals, biologists noted that “the range of 750,000–1,400,000 meets the
requirements for a spawning escapement goal under the (the state’s) Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy (5 AAC 39.222). This range also meets the common standard of optimum yield (≥90 percent of maximum sustained yield).”
But they concluded a 750,000 to 1.2 million range helps provide for more predictable future runs.
Without the commercial fishery, which has already caught 1.3 million sockeye in the Inlet this year, the river would likely end up choking on 2.5 million or more sockeye. The commercial fishery remains vital to keeping the number of spawners within the 700,000 to 1.2 million range.
Given that the sport fishery above the Kenai sonar harvests 300,000 to 400,000 sockeye in-river, however, an upper limit sonar goal of 1.5 to 1.6 million would be optimum to fully seed the many tributaries of the Kenai with sockeye based on the state assessment.
The in-river goal, as dictated by the Board, was 900,000 to 1.1 million this year. It was set solely to maximize the commercial catch. But Fish and Game, along with opening the commercial fishery today, raised the goal.
The Kenai River return for this year, the agency said, has shaped up as bigger than the 2.2 million fish forecast, and at levels above 2.2 million the in-river goal increases to the level of 1 to 1.3 million sockeye. The new goal offers fishery managers some protection from commercial fishermen sure to be angry if the in-river count tops the 1.1 million the Board set as upper limit for the year.
One-point-three million fish in-river minus the sport harvest of 300,000 to 400,000 would provide for 900,000 to 1 million spawners. A sonar count of 1 million would likely leave 600,000 to 700,000 spawners – just at or up-to-100,000-less sockeye than the state considers the bottom of its spawning escapement goal and 50,000 to 150,000 less than the optimum escapement goal as defined by fishery scientists.
Welcome to the complicated world of fisheries management in Cook Inlet where it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.
CORRECTION: This story was edited at 3 p.m. on July 29, 2017 to reflect that Matanuska-Susitna Borough legislators largely comprised the opposition to confirmation of John Jensen to the Board of Fisheries. Of the 12 votes against, nine were cast by MatSu Borough lawmakers: Sens. Mike Dunleavy, Shelley Hughes, and David Wilson along with Reps. David Eastman, DeLena Johnson, Mark Neuman, George Rauscher, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, and Cathy Tilton. The only Anchorage legislator to vote against Jensen was Rep. Lora Reinbold from Eagle River.