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/