Where are the coho?

mat-su coho

Upper Cook Inlet drainage coho catches since 1990; the sport catch for 2013 and 2014 is not shown because it is not yet available/Matanuska-Susitna Borough chart

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.

And Cotten remains tight with commercial fishing interests. Couch said Fish and Game didn’t even bother to respond to his e-mail. 

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 “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.

Fickle fish

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.



14 replies »

  1. Thank goodness this issue is being reported on and discussed. Salmon are more integral and important to Alaska than oil. (Not monetarily but culturally). There is no other forum, that i know of, where we can get up to date reporting on such an important topic WITH the opportunity to comment, thx Craig.

  2. Why does the Commissioner have to be someone from fishing interest? Why not someone game minded/background? Hunting season is upon us and the commissioner will have to deal with all the game issues as fishing season end.

  3. The only hope for the hundreds of thousand sport, guided sport and PU fishers is to get behind a candidate for Goveenor and have that person commit to appointing someone from the Sport or PU sector to be Commissioner of ADF&G and rebalance the Board of Fish with appointments from those same sectors. Arno is spot on! There are magnitudes of more voters from sport and PU than from commercial interests. Only by organizing these voters will Alaska’s constitutional mandate of managing fish resources for the maximum benefit of Alaska residents be achieved.
    Fortunately the Walker / Malloy ticket has no chance of success. Walker’s unilateral take of $1,000 from each Alaskan last year sealed his fate. And his push to impose a state income tax on Alaskans with little to no reduction of Gov spending offended most in the State. Finally his inexplicable push and public spending on a gas line that will not be viable in the foreseeable future assures him and Mallot of an overwhelming loss at the polls. Whether he runs as a Dem or Independent. Change is needed and it cannot come too soon.

    • i’m not for a commissioner from the sport or PU sector, but i’d certainly like to go back to the days when we had someone trained as a fish/wildlife biologist in the job. i prefer the resource come first. that was long an ADF&G given. we’re dancing dangerously close to abandoning it. UCI coho management has started to involve gambling. i’m not comfortable with gambling with wild resources because they have a bad limit of coming out the losers. if that’s a prejudice, so be it.

      • Appointing a Commissioner who is either a former commercial fisher or related to several commercial fishers is asking for a bias toward the commercial fishing interests. I may not have been clear on my suggestion that someone from the sports or PU sector be appointed Commissioner. Someone who is not connected to the commercial sector but has a science background in resource management or with a biology degree in the resource is needed, I agree. But there is no reason such a person cannot be connected to PU or sport use. In Alaska, it would be unusual to find anyone qualified for the position that did not come from one of those sectors. Why not have a Commissioner who at one time was a sports guide, a lodge owner, or heavily involved in the PU fishery so long as they had the science credentials for the job.
        I don’t think that we are abandoning the “fish come first” concept. What is happening is that a large majority of Alaskans are being deprived of a common resource and the constitution is being ignored. Allocations are being based on outdated facts that were relevant 50 years ago. But times have dramatically changed and Commissioners and the BOF have, but in a few instances, failed to adapt to these changes. The model of appointing commercially leaning policy makers is not working so well. When commercial directors retire and are hired as consultants for comm organizations, one wonders how balanced they were. Cotten, a former comm fisher and his family are either commercial permit holders or involved heavily in comm fishing pursuits. His father in law, Clem Tillion, does not believe in sports fishing. What would anyone expect from this commissioner. Picking someone from outside the commercial fisheries is needed to rebalance.

  4. I can hardly wait for this time next year to see just how much politics plays as a major factor in fisheries management in Alaska. Walker/Mallott will be running for reelections (it’s reported) and far more inriver salmon anglers vote than Alaskan resident commercial fishermen. What inseasion orders will the Commissioner of Fish & Game be putting out then?

  5. Craig, you forgot to mention not long before telling you about his bummer day, Mr. Couch happily helped two groups of clients catch limits of Coho out of Valley streams. Without bait.

    • The sleeping tiger has been awakened Todd Smith. The commercial sector over reached in the last UCI meeting. Commissioner Cotten has shown a disregard of the many Alaskans who have suffered because of your friend’s Ruffner and Jensen’s allocation of fish from the, literally, hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who are now deprived of a “reasonable ” opportunity at this common resource. Cotten’ commercial fish managers have exercised their EO authority in a way that has corked off not only the Kenai River but also the Susitna and Little Susitna, thus preventing many from exercising recreation interests or putting fish on their tables. Those in Anchorage and in the Mat Su valley will remember what happened this year when it comes to voting for Governor. What happened this season will motivate people like never before.

    • and i probably should have, Todd; it’s symptomatic of the problem. the people who make their livings off wild Alaska resources have a strong incentive to put their economic survival ahead of the resource. it’s what makes sound management so important, because it’s so easy to rationalize: “well, if the resource couldn’t support this; they wouldn’t be letting me fish.” in Andy Couch’s case, it would appear such thinking led to 8, 10 or 12 dead coho, depending on how many anglers were in his boat, in a fishery where the limit was long three, but is now two. the bag limit change from two to three is a 33 percent reduction. the 2016 UCI commercial catch of coho was 137,000. if we were simply managing to “share the burden of conservation” (and forget what is in the best economic interest of the state), shouldn’t the commercial harvest be similarly cut? that would put the allowable catch at about 92,000 coho. we’re well past that. i raised this only because the way the system works now makes it pretty easy from someone like Mr. Couch to rationalize his role. it’s the classic tragedy of the commons: “hey, those guys with nets are killing tens of thousands every time they’re fishery opens. why should i worry about killing a dozen or less?”

      • Come on Medred climb down from your glass tower. All this talk about the “tragedy of the commons”.
        The more folks that want fish the better the chances are that the stocks will survive.
        Just gets down to a matter of sharing. Inriver users are not asking for the world, comfish can certainly profit from a public resource and still share.

      • Perhaps you misunderstood my point. I was not bashing Andy for killing fish – just pointing out that amidst the turmoil, he’s been successful. It is way too early in Coho season to define the season or sustainability of the stock as tragedy or crisis. I was pointing out that there is GOOD FISHING in the Valley right now for Coho, just like there has been all season on the Kenai. Your constant hand-wringing and implications that opportunity is scarce, fishing is poor, and our runs are in trouble is actually bad for businesses like Andy’s – much worse than a bait restriction – whether he realizes that or not. Super bummer how you’ve torn down every fish run within a 300 mile radius of Anchorage in an effort to create political groundswell against ADFG and the current administration. It’s damaging to our local economies and our devoted managers, and is a pretty darned deceptive and destructive way to play politics.

      • Hindsight is 20/20. It appears every system that is enumerated in the matsu achieved or exceeded escapement goals

      • That’s true, but ADF&G is down to monitoring only the Deshka and Little Su.

        Still, it does look to be a very good year for coho in many places, and it would seem a management plan designed to move those fish through the drift fleet worked. Or maybe it’s just due to so few drifters fishing this year.

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