Yes, no, maybe


gillnet jackpot

A banner day on an Alaska gillnetter/University of Alaska Fairbanks photo

Only days after over-seeing the deaths of nearly 90,000 Upper Cook Inlet coho salmon in two commercial drift gillnet openings in the belief the coho run was late and strong, fishery managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have changed their minds.

An emergency order issued Sunday cut commercial fishing time in the northern Inlet in half and restricted drift netters to drift “Area 1” south of Kalgin Island, along with a corridor near the mouth of the Kenai River.

The Area 1 restriction pushes the fleet down into the wide, unconstricted part of the Inlet where it is harder to find the fish.

The emergency order noted a state Sport Fish Division decision to ban bait fishing for coho in the popular Little Susitna River west of Wasilla, and said  that “the Little Susitna River coho salmon sustainable escapement goal (SEG) is 10,100 – 17,700 fish.
Recent daily weir counts are below average, and as of Saturday… total passage
through the Little Susitna weir of 1,833 fish projects that the minimum SEG will not be achieved.

“The restrictive actions to commercial fishing in this announcement are intended to reduce the harvest of coho salmon returning to Northern Cook Inlet.”

There remains hope the Little Su could meet its lower goal.

Good days gone so-so

After a Friday count of 738 coho at the Little Su weir coupled with warm weather leading to glacial melt in the Talkeetna Mountains that brought water levels up by more than six inches, biologists were expecting a big Saturday, but the day’s count was a disappointing 416.

It was not an encouraging sign. Coho are notorious for sprinting for the upper reaches of Alaska drainages when water levels rise.

The Deshka River – a tributary to the big, glacially fed Susitna River – saw 1,600 salmon pass the weir there when the water there started rising on Friday, but even though the water went up more than a foot between Friday and Saturday, the Saturday count fell to 1,200.

The big, two-day return did put the Deshka back on track to meet a minimum spawning goal of 10,200, but that is nowhere near guaranteed. The Little Su, meanwhile, lags behind last year at this time. And in 2016, the river fell short of the minimum spawning goal.

The commercial restrictions came just after Andy Couch, a Little Su fishing guide who lobbied Fish and Game to impose drift fleet restrictions last week to protect coho, finally got a response from state Commercial Fisheries Director Scott Kelley saying the nearly 90,000 coho caught by the drift fleet were collateral damage from an attempt to keep Kenai River sockeye escapements low.

Kelley also offered assurances the Little Su and Deshka were on track.

“The primary reason  to open commercial drift gillnet fishing to all waters of Central District for those two periods was to harvest available Kenai and Kasilof sockeye salmon surplus to escapement goals,” Kelley wrote, adding that “the offshore-test-fishery (OTF) coho salmon catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) model projects escapement goals will be achieved at Little Susitna and Deshka rivers.

“The cumulative coho salmon CPUE through July 30, 2017 was the 10th highest CPUE since 1988. A model based upon coho salmon test fishery CPUE indicated a high probability of achieving the Little Susitna River coho salmon SEG (10,100–17,700) and the Deshka River coho salmon SEG (10,200–24,100).”

It remains possible a lot of coho salmon could show up late. Fish are fickle. And high CPUE’s often indicate strong runs. But sometimes, fishermen prove amazingly efficient at finding where fish concentrate or just get lucky and post high CPUEs even when there aren’t that many fish.

“Because fishers preferably operate where they believe there are fish, fishing effort is not randomly distributed, but rather concentrated on good fishing grounds,” fisheries scientist Daniel Gaertner observed in a 2012 paper published by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. “This pattern can be expected for schooling fisheries where searching is highly efficient….

“As a consequence, catch per unit effort  is not proportional to abundance.Despite its shortcomings, CPUE still remains a simple and attractive index of abundance commonly used for stock assessment diagnosis by international fishery agencies.”

Much the same is true for test fisheries. Sometimes nets just happen to be set in the right place at the right time and post strong CPUEs even when runs aren’t great.

The hope now is that Kelley’s model based upon CPUE indicating “a high probability of achieving the Little Susitna River coho salmon SEG” is right and not an outlier.


6 replies »

  1. Not sure where to start with this comment. Mid 70s, deshka completely closed to king fishing for 4 years. Mid to later 70s little Susitna after walking counts and float assessments, coho numbers were like counting them on one hand. Fish creek per big lake drainage sockeye numbers were abysmal per weir counts. Coho salmon I believe count was 1800 jacks and around 1500 2-1s (normal age structure there). During that period in time, means of various research were in place to target in on the stock issues of migrating fish through cook inlet. Roughly 40-43 years later the UCI stocks and I don’t care which species is targeted for commercial, sport, subsistence, personal use harvests is in trouble and not a year by year cosmetic management conundrum. The BOF and FG Comm Fish and Sport Fish managers are effectively, if the same path of annual management on cook inlet salmon continues, to render UCI very very hard to rebound avoiding all the user conflicts. This is very haunting because if one bothers to read the 80s Su-hydro work and compares it to the more contemporary Su-hydro work, the loss in stocks is staggering, estimated 40%. THAT is the “big” picture. This method of BOF recommendations or directives, I don’t know what to call it, is failing. Neither Comm Fish or Sport Fish seem to be able to address what historically is continuing to happen on an annual basis. As evidenced by comparing the su-hydro reports stock management has been chipping away at UCI stocks. Those who ply UCI rivers while poo-pooed for their parol observations have through time been annually witnessing this occurrence. The “resource” needs to more effectively managed to “comprehensively” keep this ecosystem afloat in particular UCI. Ironically or not so, the money trail and/or political trail needs to be a better check and balance for sake of salmon stocks in UCI. The folks in charge of this continuance have not changed, get rid of all of them, they cannot do their job (take the tougher road) in sheparding cook inlet drainages.

  2. modern technology is available to manage fish traps across rivers that could be managed by the minute, by State biologist, IN RIVER, and have a processor in a cost plus contract next to traps to process quality salmon products at a lower cost to the market.

    big thinking ends all the BS

  3. Scott Kelly is still using the over escapement excuse, what a crock, Bristol bay rivers (home to the biggest runs) have over escapement in the millions and consistently produce the largest runs. Time for F&G to find a new excuse to screw the valley.

  4. These management decisions should be of no surprise. The Chair of the Board of Fish ( a lifetime commercial fisher )made it quite clear that he wanted to get the fish back from the dip netters and anglers and give them to the Commercial sector. Walker’s recent Board appointee Ruffner, who lives in Kenai / Soldotna drive the meeting with the help of another Board member from Kodiak, also a commercial fisher, and engaged in a reallocation from PU and Sport to Commercial. Add to that a Commissioner of ADF&G who along with his family have been lifelong commercial fishers, and the result is an unhealthy bias in the management of this common property resource. The over reaching and commercial greed this season was so great that it has wakened the hundreds of thousand of beneficiaries of sport and PU fishing, who will will show their displeasure by throwing Walker out of office and putting someone in who will make the needed changes on the Board and in ADF&G. And it cannot happen to soon.

  5. Still we use the crystal ball management. Instead of using the first and second pulses passed sonar and weir counts. these fish have to go the farthest and could provide inland river user and opportunity. Thus allowing blue water users and lower river users more accurate and conservation minded openers.(Minded; subsistence use has the highest priority. All other uses fall short of that and are politically manipulated)

    We are supposed to manage on conservation/science. Not we “hope” our models are correct. SEG are our conservation tool and should have the highest priority for conservation/protection.

    Instead we manage from the blue water to the headwaters (Backwards), we should be managing from the head waters to the blue water. This kind of management will always make SEG and conservation of the resource will always have protection.(a mandate)

    Efficiency of equipment and effort have changed and the current models used to predict harvest have not been adjusted for this, as your article points out very clearly to me.

    To answer your question: It should never be “maybe” If we are using real numbers, instead of “hopping” for numbers. the answer will always be yes or no.

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