The bad news came in triplicate for Little Susitna River guide Andy Couch on Friday.
First there was the daily coho salmon enumeration from the Little Su weir. The 39 fish counted the day before brought the season’s total to 679, the lowest count since 2012. August 2012 started with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announcing that bait fishing – scheduled to open Aug. 6 – would not be allowed.
Four days later came the announcement the river would be closed to coho fishing for the rest of the year. When Couch, a longtime Little Su angler and guide saw the Thursday count this year, he knew what to expect next: another bait ban.
But before that was announced the commercial catch statistics for a Thursday opening of the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fleet started trickling in. A week ago, Couch appealed to Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten to restrict where drift gillnetters could fish in the Inlet in order to minimize the catch of coho bound for the massive Susitna River drainage and the smaller Little Su west of Wasilla.
Cotten retired as a commercial fishermen before taking the job as Fish and Game commissioner. But records for the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission indicate he didn’t step far away. His son, Sam T., now fishes dad’s old Cook Inlet purse seine permit.
Big commercial catches
What happened after Couch sent his email was what he feared. In the regular, Monday opening of the drift fishery, commercial fishermen caught more coho salmon – 39,000 – than sockeye salmon – 32,000 – in what is supposed to be a sockeye salmon fishery.
On Thursday, it got worse. The commercial catch of coho swelled to 49,000 as the sockeye catch stayed at 32,000. What was supposed to be a targeted sockeye fishery had become a targeted coho fishery.
Ken Tarbox, the now retired state commercial fisheries biologist who used to manage the Cook Inlet fishery, defended the catch.
“The coho catch on Monday and Thursday were on regular periods,” he said in a comment to craigmedred.news. “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.”
The overall catch on Thursday included 4,000 pinks, a low-value species drifters don’t really want; and 37,000 chums. Coho made up 40 percent of the overall catch.
Kevin Delaney, the former director of the Sport Fish Division, agreed there was nothing to stop fisheries managers from throwing the Inlet wide open to drift net fishermen on Thursday. Managers stayed within the plan approved by the state Board of Fisheries, he said.
But there was also nothing to stop managers from trying to protect coho, except maybe the advice from the Fish Board chairman near the end of a March Board meeting at which the body loosened restrictions on commercial fishing in the Inlet.
Chair John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg, laid out the marching orders pretty directly when he said the changes made by the board in March were intended to “allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Patti Sullivan, the public affairs director for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, later accused the board of “lowering the boom on Mat-Su basin fisheries.”
Writing in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, she blasted the Board’s decision to allow driftnetters back into a 2-year-old “conservation corridor” and warned it was a conservation mistake. So far, she looks to be right, but it also possible the run is late and strong as Tarbox suggests.
Sometimes a big commercial catch does mean “the run is late and the run is strong,” as he wrote. And sometimes, it means the fishermen did a good job of finding whatever fish there werwe and catching many of them.
Despite the possibility the run is late and strong, the state’s Sport Fish Division did not appear in a gambling mood, which delivered Couch the third bit of bad news on Friday.
“The use of bait will be prohibited in the Little Susitna River from its mouth upstream to the Parks Highway effective 12:01 a.m. Sunday, August 6, 2017, through 11:59 p.m. Saturday, September 30, 2017,” the agency said in an emergency order. “Only unbaited, artificial lures may be used.
“The Little Susitna River coho salmon sustainable escapement goal (SEG) is 10,100 – 17,700 fish. Recent daily weir counts are well below average. As of August 3, 2017, only 679 coho salmon had passed upstream of the weir and the escapement is projected to be 4,456 fish at the 15th percentile of the historical run….At this time, it is justified to slow the harvest of coho salmon at the Little Susitna River until the run can be further assessed to ensure the SEG is met.”
The ban on bait makes it harder to catch coho, which forces the catch rate down. For the fish at least, the ban on bait is good. For anglers, and for guides who make their living by helping anglers catch fish, it was not such good news – although Couch, Delaney and others agreed the bait-ban is justified given the current circumstances in the Valley.
The Little Su isn’t the only Mat-Su river short on coho, a fish Alaskans tend to simply call a “silver.” Only a 333 silvers had passed the Deshka River weir as of Thursday. That was about 60 percent of the number last year on the same date. In 2016, the Deshka fell almost 3,400 fish short of its coho spawning goal of 10,200.
Anglers everywhere were hoping Tarbox was right about the run being late, and there have indeed been occasions when a lot of coho have shown up tardy. Four years ago, a flood of them hit the Deshka in mid-August and what had looked to be a disastrously bad run ended up just a couple thousand fish shy of the upper escapement range of 24,100.
High water temperatures were clearly a factor in 2012. The Deshka was 68 degrees at the end of July 2012. Fish didn’t really start to move until water temps fell to 57 degrees on Aug. 12. Water temperatures in the Deshka in recent days have fluctuated between 59 and 63 degrees.
While Tarbox and some others are confident the run is late, sport fish managers were hedging their bets. In the EO banning bait, they observed that “if run strength improves to a level that can support a larger harvest, restrictions to the sport fishery may be rescinded. However, additional restrictions are possible if the run does not improve.”
Anglers and guides can only hope they aren’t seeing a replay of 2012. That year saw the Little Su closed despite a small commercial harvest in the Inlet. The 2012 commercial catch of 107,000 coho was the fifth lowest since 1966 and only 43 percent of the 10-year average.
Commercial fishermen have done better this year. After the healthy catches on Monday and Thursday, the total for Upper Cook Inlet now stands at 114,000. Another regular period come Monday. Whether commercial fishery managers will do anything to try to restrict the further harvest of coho remains to be seen.