No sooner does one Cook Inlet salmon crisis pass than another erupts. This times its coho salmon in the spotlight.
Little Susitna River guide Andy Couch said Wednesday he felt like he’d been kicked in the teeth by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game after seeing the big coho catch in the Monday opening of the commercial drift gillnet fishery in upper Cook Inlet.
Earlier, Couch had written a letter to Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a long time commercial fisherman, pleading with the state agency to hold the drift fleet along the Kenai Peninsula shore to maximize the catch of Kenai River bound sockeye salmon and minimize the catch of coho bound for Knik Inlet streams, and the Susitna and Matanuska rivers along with their many tributaries.
Cotten ignored the letter.
“I didn’t even get a reply,” Couch said.
And the drift fleet was turned loose in the Inlet. The result?
A catch of 39,000 coho and but 32,000 sockeye. That was bad, Couch said, but what is worse is the state’s plan to prosecute the fishery in the same way during the next regular fishing period today.
This at a time when few coho have shown in northern Inlet streams.
“Jim Creek has seven,” Couch said Wednesday evening. The number was confirmed by the state Fish Count Data website. About 590 had passed through the weir on the Little Susitna as of Tuesday, according to the state count; that is about a third of the return by the same date last year. The weir on the Deshka River, a main coho spawning tributary of the Susitna, had counted just shy of 230, about half of last year on the same date.
Salmon runs around the Inlet appear to be a little late, and it’s still early in the season. So the tiny numbers aren’t nearly as bad as they might look at first glance. But for sport fishing guides and anglers in the sprawling Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the numbers – coupled with the lack of any sign of significant movements of coho into the northern end of the Inlet – are not encouraging.
“Scraps on the table,” Couch said. “There’s not even that.”
Having struck out with Cotten, Couch was planning to make an appeal to Gov. Bill Walker to direct Fish and Game to manage the Inlet fishery to allow more coho, or silver salmon as they are often and otherwise known, to escape to Susitna drainages, but Couch admitted he wasn’t holding much hope the appeal would accomplish anything.
“You’ve got a governor who was elected with the commercial guy’s support, and now he’s paying them back,” Couch said.
So here’s the Cook Inlet fishing history since just before a Board of Fisheries meeting in March to set new regulations for fisheries in and around the long finger of the Pacific Ocean that pokes into midsection of the 49th state before splitting into two fingers at Anchorage’s doorstep:
- Long before the meeting, Walker signaled his views by trying to force the Board, which operates independent of the executive branch, to meet in the city of Kenai, where Kenai commercial fishermen promised they would only lobby, not threaten.
- The Board met in Anchorage as planned, but led by Kenai board member Robert Ruffner made a variety of regulatory changes intended to favor commercial fishermen. The changes were complicated, but summarized easily by Board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fishermen from Petersburg, who observed they “would allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion gave them up.” Jensen had two years earlier voted with the majority on regulations he was in March voting in significant part to undo. His term on the Board was due to expire, but Walker reappointed him shortly before the Board meeting. Jensen was awaiting confirmation by the Legislature, and he needed the support of commercial fishermen, who’ve long had great influence in the state’s capital.
- With the Board’s marching orders in hand dictating more fish for commercial fishermen, state fishery managers gave commercial fishermen every opportunity possible to go after Kenai and Kasilof river bound sockeye early in July of this year. The result was that far too few salmon escaped commercial nets, in-river salmon goals for the Kenai lagged, and – because of the lack of fish – the angling was poor.
- By July 22, fishery managers were starting to worry they wouldn’t meet in-river spawning goals. The commercial catch stood at 1.3 million sockeye, about 76 percent of a preseason forecast projecting a commercial harvest of 1.7 million of the fish. But near the historic midpoint of the run, only about a third of the minimum goal of 900,000 sockeye had entered the river. Anglers frustrated by the lack of fish in-river were joined by personal-use dipnetters now mad they hadn’t been able to catch much due to the small number of fish escaping commercial nets.
- Given the shortage of fish in-river, managers canceled a regularly scheduled commercial opening on July 24. That angered commercial fishermen. Dipnetters scooped up their small catch and smiled. Commercial fishermen only got angrier when a second regularly scheduled opening was canceled on July 27.
- But the commercial closures did allow for a flood of more than 350,000 sockeye that started July 24 and continued into Saturday. The earlier poor dipnetting was suddenly very good, and commercial fishermen watching it with nets out of the water were very unhappy. The big slug of fish did, however, get the river back on track to meet spawning goals and that led fishery managers to reopen the commercial fishery (commercial fishing is the Board-ordered management ‘priority’ in the Inlet in July) just in time to spread the unhappiness to personal-use dipnetters headed to the mouth of the Kenai River for the last weekend of the short, dipnet season.
- Commercial fishermen caught 102,000 sockeye on Saturday and another 74,000 on Monday. As a result, the flow of fish into the river went from 72,000 on Wednesday to 25,000 on Sunday and the dipnetting fizzled.
- The good news was the Saturday catch was heavily weighted toward sockeye, but that shifted on Monday when coho predominated in the commercial drift catch, which led to unhappy anglers in or looking to fish the Mat-Su Valley.
Sockeye salmon are generally the money fish for commercial operators in the Inlet, and many of them contend coho are little more than by-catch. In some cases that is true, but in others not.
The Inlet is now late into the sockeye season. Some of the sockeye sport a blush, a hint of the bright red spawning colors to come. That makes the fish less valuable. And sockeye prices overall are falling because of an unexpected bounty of almost 38 million sockeye in Bristol Bay.
As the Bay catch went up quality control problems arose, reported the fish site Undercurrent News, and prices started falling from the season opener of around $1 per pound. Cook Inlet sockeye prices are generally higher than in Bristol Bay, but follow price trends set by the big pack in the Bay.
Inlet fishermen got about 50 cents per pound more than Bay fishermen for sockeye last year, and coho were, on average, worth only half of what sockeye were worth in the Inlet. But prices paid for salmon fluctuate significantly through the season based on “grade” and “size.”
And then there is the matter of weight. Inlet coho usually run from a half to a pound heavier than sockeye. In some circumstances, all these variables can make a coho worth more than a sockeye.
And commercial fishermen are above all else businessmen.
They will fish for whatever salmon will net them the most profit. The big catch of coho on Monday has Couch and others worried that coho are now the money fish, and that there could be another big catch of coho today.
At the March board meeting, MatSu anglers and businessmen paraded before the Board to plead with it to structure regulations specifically to make sure this wouldn’t happen.
“I’m here to ask the board for help,” said Mike Hudson, the owner of 3 Rivers Fly & Tackle in Wasilla. He outlined how over the course of a couple of decades, he grew his business from nothing to 12 employees, two shops and an annual gross of about $1 million only watch it start to fade away as Valley salmon returns collapsed.
The business is now down to one shop, two part-time employees and a gross closer to $250,000.
“This is a very clear picture of the Mat-Su economy,” said Hudson, who asked the Board to come up with a plan “to share stocks on a more reasonable basis.”
The Board’s answer came in the form of Jensen’s summary at the end of days of long meetings. The Board ruled that interests of commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula trumped those of anglers in the Valley.
The Board, and fishery managers, treat the Inlet as if it were an arm of the ocean, but it is really more like the Yukon River.
What happens in the lower Inlet and middle Inlet has big implications for upstream users. The Mat-Su Valley is Cook Inlet’s Canada, but unlike Canada, the Valley has no treaty guaranteeing the future of its salmon.
It is wholly at the mercy of decisions made by commercial fishery managers far downstream in Kenai, and those fishery managers just happen to share an office building with the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) the most powerful commercial fishing lobby in the region.
prices falling bristol bay catch. https://www.undercurrentnews.com/2017/07/18/starting-alaska-sockeye-base-price-on-par-with-five-year-average/
Craig, you keep misleading people and thus create conflict when none has to be there. So let us take this one point at a time. The commercial preference is for sockeye, chum, and pink salmon. The Department is to minimize coho interception and in all this manage to escapement goals for those species and rivers that have them. The Board defined minimize over more than a single Board cycle (so your shot at Robert Ruffner which seems to be your target is not valid). They knew the coho peaked around July 23rd and as such have severely restricted the drift gill net fishery in July to pass coho north. Next, they implemented the 1% rule which closes the major portion of the inlet to drift fisherman if sockeye catches decrease to less than 1% of the total harvest. They made one adjustment at the last Board of Fish meeting and the Department said it would not increase the coho catch in the drift fleet. So your premise on Ruffner and Jensen is mistaken. Next, the coho catch on Monday and Thursday were on regular periods. There was no defined conservation issue by Sport Fish Division in terms of regulatory action and thus commercial fish managers had no justification to restrict the drift fleet. Plus you left out that the total commercial species caught exceeded the coho catch. Next, the catch by the drift fleet was a record for August the last two periods. That means two things – the run is late (ADFG is saying 5 days) and the run is strong. Drift fleet catches are a good indication of run strength. Next, the coho population in the valley is being impacted by the over 100 lakes and systems that have northern pike. ADFG estimated in one report pike predation could reduce the population by 50%. Next, valley streams have issues with pollution – the Little Susitna violates hydrocarbon and turbidity water quality standards. The Fish Habitat Partnership in the Valley has define perched culverts as another source of habitat damage. In summary you have done a disservice to Ruffner, Jensen, the Governor, and the public by not being complete in your reporting. I am only asking that you be complete and honest in your reporting. I know you knew the above and am perplexed why you would not tell the whole story.
Ken: i generally appreciate you comments, but most of them more so than this one. why? because the only accurate description for this one would be “disingenuous.”
to start with, nobody has any idea as to the overall rate of pike mortality on juvenile coho in the massive Sustina River drainage,and you know it. it could be 50 percent. it could be 5 percent. and it could be any number in between. its a WAG.
pike have devastated a handful of Susitna tributaries and had little apparent impact on others. predation is a complicated issue, and you know that, too. given habitat appearance, one would expect pike to have devastated the Moose River there on the Kenai, and that doesn’t appear to have happened.
and yes, some valley streams have issues with hydrocarbons and turbidity. so did/does the Kenai River, (https://dec.alaska.gov/water/wnpspc/pdfs/Kenai%20Report_FINAL_14Jan04.pdf) but there is no evidence to indicate these issues significantly affected salmon survival. as you should be well aware, hydrocarbons and turbidity are even bigger issues in the Lower 48 than here and thus are better studied there than here. the latest research would indicate the problem isn’t as much hydrocarbons and turbidity as it is the complex chemistry of unfiltered “urban runoff.” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12534/pdf)
when it comes to urban runoff, the Kenai River would appear much more susceptible than the Little Susitna. as you drive from your home across the Kenai River bridge to the Soldotna Fred Meyer, you might note that the Kenai is straddled by a busy, sprawling urban area. there is nothing like it within runoff distance of the Little Su. if the hydrocarbon/turibity/runoff problems were a serious issue, one would expect to see it more down your way more than up north.
what we do know about the Little Su and the massive Susitna River drainage up north is one simple thing: dead fish don’t spawn.
as the former commercial area biologist for Kenai, i understand that you had an intimate relationship with the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) but as one who covered the Board of Fisheries for many years while you were the biologist down there, i was always under the impression there was a gentleman’s agreement that the coho catch in the drift fleet would be “minimized” as best possible to prevent that north end problem of dead fish not spawning.
in fact, i remember former Commissioner of Fish and Game Denby Lloyd dropping me a nice note when, as a columnist at the now-defunct Anchorage Daily News, i defended the Department’s prosecution of some commercial openings that caught big numbers of coho while in pursuit of sockeye. in those cases, however, the coho catch, while large, was minimal compared to the sockeye catch.
that’s not the situation here. the Monday opening in the drift fleet saw a catch of 39,000 coho and 32,000 sockeye. the numbers for the Thursday opening rose to 49,000 coho and 32,000 sockeye. (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=commercialbyareauci.salmon_harvest_current) this isn’t a sockeye fishery. this is a directed coho fishery.
you write that “the commercial preference is for sockeye, chum, and pink salmon. The Department is to minimize coho interception….”
the clear commercial preference in the last opening of the drift fishery as indicated in black and white by the catch numbers was for coho. they caught more coho than any other species. you and i both know that sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident. let’s not try to kid the public. commercial fishermen are extremely good at what they do.
and interjecting pinks into this discussion almost seems like some sort of joke. the pink harvest, despite this being an unusually good year for pinks, was 3,700 fish. that’s about 7 percent of the coho catch. the drifters don’t want pinks. you know that and i know that. they’re low-value fish hardly worth bothering to pull out of the net.
granted, the catch of chums – a higher value fish – was significantly bigger than that of pinks, but it too trailed the coho catch. which just leaves on question:
what happened to that responsibility you admit the Department has to “minimize coho interception”?
i could go on, but i won’t, because i’m too likely to just end up irritated at your game playing here. it’s rather amazing to see you write:
“There was no defined conservation issue by Sport Fish Division in terms of regulatory action and thus commercial fish managers had no justification to restrict the drift fleet.”
you spent a career in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. you know how the politics work. with this governor and Fish and Game commissioner who is a former commercial fishermen, a first for the Department i believe, who in the sport fish division is going to put their career on the online to argue for getting more coho through to the Susitna River or other north end streams? i don’t think anybody in the Department wants the job as the new area sportfish biologist for Adak Island.
should someone have argued for restraint? probably.
the weir count on the Little Su is now up to 679, about a third of what it was for the same date last year when the Department failed to meet the minimum escapement goal. (https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/sf/FishCounts/index.cfm?ADFG=main.displayResults) i seriously hope you’re right in the observation the run is late and strong.
i certainly do agree that high catch rates late in the season mean the run is late and often that it is stronger than expected. the problem is that this is not what high catch rates late in the season ALWAYS mean.
sometimes fishermen – who, to repeat, are very good at what they do – do a superb job of finding fish even when there aren’t large numbers of fish to be found.
but either way, we still have that little issue of the Department’s responsibility to “minimize coho interception.” if, indeed, we have a large late run of coho, minimizing that commercial harvest could mean a great August sport fishery in the MatSu Valley. but there’s no indication the Department minimized the harvest. so, in the best case scenario, the Valley gets a good, or maybe OK, sport fishery out of that strong run. if there is a strong run.
and in worst case scenario, well, your guess is wrong, the run isn’t that strong, and we once against fall short of minimum escapement on the Little Su.
The only answer is to get behind a candidate for governor with fund raising events, advertising and personal donations. But only if that person agrees to appoint someone as ADF&G commissioner who comes from the valley, Anchorage, or Fairbanks and who is not from the commercial fishing sector and who is an angler and a PU supporter. And, who will commit to appoint people on the Board who feel the same. Full page ads pointing out what has happened to the hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who depend on Coho and Sockeye for food and recreation by Walker’s and the Board’s actions might stimulate them into requiring a candidate to commit to a change. UCIDA and KPFA did it last election and it worked. And look what has happened in just one year. The next UCI BOF meeting will be held after the election. It is now time to make some changes.
Don’t forget that the legislature has a hand in this, first by confirming appointees of the governor, and second by writing legislation. Get a few MatSu and ANC legislators on board in the Cook Inlet fish wars today and see what is offered when they reconvene in January. Cheers –
Hugh difference between the Mat-Su legislators and those from Anchorage. All but one from Eagle River representing Anchorage area voted with the commercial fishery industry for John Jensen during the last round of Board of Fisheries confirmation. Some Anchorage representatives talk tough saying they support their constituency of inriver users but talk is cheap. They vote in support of commercial fisheries year after year during Board of Fisheries confirmation. Mat Su legislators are solid behind their voters who want to see salmon stocks return to the Northern District. They all voted no on John Jensen’s reappointment.
Best anglers from Anchorage remember that next year during the 2018 statewide election.
Could the Walker/Mallott plan to take away salmon and public access (Klutina Lake Road) from non-rural Alaska residents and then tax them so they can keep squandering state funds really be a doable reelection strategy? I hope not.