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Endless fish fight

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The subject of so many desires, an Alaska sockeye salmon/Craig Medred photo

Commercial salmon gillnetters were back at work in Cook Inlet on Wednesday as state fishery managers tried to stem the flow of sockeye salmon into the Kenai River in keeping with the orders of the state Board of Fisheries.

Meanwhile, political leaders in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were seething about the low numbers of coho salmon showing in streams there because of Inlet fishing.

“The established state channels are deaf to our salmon conservation plight,” borough Mayor Vern Halter wrote in a letter sent to Gov. Bill Walker. “Few cohos are making it past the commercial nets to northern waters. On Sunday, an emergency order closed our Little Susitna River to bait fishing, while more than 50 miles to the south, commercial drift gillnetters hauled in 88,000 cohos in just two days. Add another 18,000 that were commercially caught on Monday. There very well may be a large coho run, but whether the salmon make it here, that’s the question.”

State Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley has described the coho as collateral damage from efforts to mop up as many Inlet sockeye salmon as possible. The sockeye support a commercial net fishery based largely in the city of Kenai, about halfway up Cook Inlet on its run from the North Pacific Ocean to Anchorage.

“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 Little Su fishing guide Andy Couch. Kelley added assurance 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.”

Returns to the Little Su did jump up after Kelley penned the letter last Wednesday. More than 700 coho stormed the Little Su weir on Thursday as the river rose and more than 1,300 followed over the next three days. But the daily count had fallen back to 173 by Tuesday, and the river appeared on a track for a replay of 2016 when it came up short of the minimum spawning goal.

Given the sputtering Little Su and other rivers at the north end of the Inlet, commercial fishery managers in Kenai did impose restrictions on a Wednesday emergency opening of the commercial fishery in an effort to minimize the catch of coho salmon bound not only for Little Su but also for the many tributaries of the much bigger Susitna River to the west.

“Commercial salmon fishing with drift gillnets will be open in the expanded Kenai and expanded Kasilof sections” and the Anchor Point area, the emergency order said. Set gillnets were largely limited in the same way. Those fishing areas are focused on the harvest of Kenai and Kasilof fish.

The restriction was good news for the Mat-Su, but bad news for the Kenai. The restrictions are to sure to up the catch of Kenai coho, and setnet catches of coho were already on the increase. Setnets near the mouth of the Kenai caught only about 1,000 coho during an end of July opening.

But they’ve been catching coho at the rate of about 5,000 per opening since. The drift catch in the Kenai corridor could add thousands more dead coho, although this isn’t supposed to be a coho fishery.

The fishery was opened to catch much more plentiful sockeye.

Angry anglers

Kenai anglers still angry about a slow start to the sockeye season because of big, early commercial catches of sockeye in the Inlet are now starting to complain about sockeye being managed at the expense of coho in a fishery that already has problems.

Kenai coho anglers are limited to two fish because of conservation concerns.  There is no limit on the commercial catch.

Given the latter, some anglers this spring asked the Board to up the coho limit to three, the traditional salmon limit for all Kenai species except Chinook. The request was denied because of fears about over harvest.

Board member Robert Ruffner from Kenai led the effort to keep the sport catch at two, noting that that Board had already given any possible extra harvest to commercial fishermen. The Board, he said, “did take some actions…that allocated some more fish to the commercial fishery, but even had we not done that, there’s no room here to” give anglers another fish.

State managers were Tuesday taking shelter behind the Board-approved Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan in justifying extra commercial fishing time of the mouth of the Kenai.

As noted in their emergency order, the plan “states that for Kenai River sockeye salmon runs of 2.3 million to 4.6 million fish, the upper subdistrict set gillnet fishery will fish regular fishing periods and the commissioner may, by emergency order, allow extra fishing periods of no more than 51 hours per week. With this fishing announcement, 15 hours of additional time will have been used for the week of August.”

State fishery managers on July 28 revised the estimated sockeye return for the Inlet from under 2.3 million to upwards of 2.3 million to allow for more commercial fishing. 

The commercial catch has already crept past the preseason harvest forecast of 1.7 million, but as of Wednesday, almost 1 million late-run sockeye had also escaped into the Kenai River.

Fishery managers are worried they could now be in danger of going over the 1.3 million sockeye ceiling for Inlet runs of between 2.3 and 4.6 million fish. The ceiling is of considerable concern to commercial fishermen and the Board of Fisheries, which is trying to maximize the commercial catch of Inlet sockeye.

But it is only partially related to Kenai spawning needs.

Quantum complexity

Kenai River sockeye salmon management is nothing if not complicated. It’s almost as if the management plans were designed to confuse average Alaskans.

The in-river, sockeye goal at a sonar counter just downstream from the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna ranges from 900,000 to 1.5 million salmon, but those numbers are only partly tied to conservation.

The actual spawning goal (or what is officially called the “sustainable escapement goal” (SEG) for the river) is 700,000 to 1.2 million.The SEG, however, is calculated only after anglers upstream from the sonar harvest 250,000 to possibly as many as 400,000 sockeye in-river.

Thus a sonar count of 900,000 in-river might mean as few as 500,000 spawners – a number way below what is needed for maximum production. But that probably won’t happen because the size of the sport harvest, as it is called, is highly dependent on the sonar count.

“Large numbers of sockeye salmon must be present to provide acceptable harvest rates,” as one state study put it. 

Sockeye angling on the Kenai pretty much sucked through early and mid-July because large numbers of sockeye were not available. The sockeye had been cut off by big commercial catches in the Inlet in July.

By July 22, the Inlet catch stood at 1.3 million sockeye, and only 307,000 of the fish had made it into the Kenai River.

Fishery managers then hit the panic button, and closed two regularly scheduled openings of the commercial fishery. With the nets out of the water, about 350,000 salmon swarmed into the river, and all of a sudden managers were worried they had a bigger than forecast return.

The run size was revised and the in-river minimum goal rose from 900,000 to 1.1 million. Fishery managers then returned to trying to maximize the commercial harvest of sockeye.

Kenai control

 

What happens everywhere around the Inlet almost always ends up linked in some way – as was the Mat-Su coho catch – to what happens on the Kenai, where there is an annual dance to allocate sockeye salmon between commercial, sport and personal-use dipnet fisheries.

The participants in all of those fisheries want more, but the commercial fishery pretty much runs the show.

Approximately 1,100 commercial permit holders caught an average of about 3.5 million sockeye per year through the first decade of the 2000s with about three out of every five of those a Kenai sockeye. 

And they have become accustomed to this bounty even though the historic catch for the Inlet is more like 1.3 million. It eventually grew to nearly triple that in the years after Alaska voters amended the state Constitution to allow for a limit on the number of permits to be issued commercial fishermen.

Commercial fishermen now stand first in line for Cook Inlet salmon. Behind them wait personal-use, dipnet fishermen at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

An average 18,000 personal-use dipnetters over the first decade of the 2000s averaged about 219,000 sockeye per year at the mouth of the Kenai. The harvest did explode to over 500,000 per year in 2011 and 2012 until starting a steady slide back to 260,000 last year.

The catch appears directly tied to how many sockeye get through the commercial fishery to enter the river. When there are big pulses of sockeye, the dipnet fishery does well. When the sockeye trickle in, the dipnet fishery  does poorly.

The personal-use and commercial catches, and a smallish in-river sport catch in the lower river, comprise the harvest downstream from that all-important sonar that charts the Kenai in-river goal.

Tens of thousands of anglers – the actual number is hard to estimate because of wide, annual swings in participation – flock to the river to catch sockeye upstream from the sonar. They caught an average of 269,000 Kenai sockeye per year in the first decade of the 2000s, but their harvests varied widely from a low of 173,000 to a high of 309,000. 

Angling, like dipnetting, is hugely dependent on how many fish get into the river. Sockeye do not feed in freshwater, and thus tend to strike a lure or fly only by accident or when agitated. They are most easily caught when found in large schools which make them more prone to one of the above behaviors.

The many anglers, many of them from out-of-state, are a mainstay of the Kenai’s bear-like tourism industry with its many businesses active in the summer and largely in hibernation in the winter.

“Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the borough,” according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough website, but it’s far from the most popular. That honor would go to the commercial fishing business which heavily promotes its historic lifestyle.

Long ago passed by the oil and gas business as the Peninsula’s major economic power, it remain the Kenai’s most potent political organization. Kenai commercial fishermen flexed their muscles at the Board of Fisheries meeting earlier this year and won. 

The biggest losers were likely the dipnetters, the people who participate in an Alaskan-only fishery intended solely to help them put fish away for the winter. The dipnet catch won’t be known for months. It is still measured by an archaic system that asks people to mail in postcards reporting their catch.

But given the lack of sockeye hitting the Kenai prior to July 22, the catch appears likely to be on the order of what it was last year, which was about half of what it was at the fishery’s peak.

Whether the dipnetters care is hard to say. They are a ragtag bunch, many of lower incomes, largely unschooled in how Kenai fisheries work. When the fishing is bad, they are as likely to blame the whims of nature as they are fishery managers exerting control.

And given that they gravitate to the Kenai from around the state, there is no one to speak for them the way the mayor of the MatSu speaks for tourism-connected fishing interests there or the way the mayor of Kenai speaks for commercial fishing interests.

 

 

 

 

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21 replies »

  1. BY- Seems you fish for a living – anything else to help our community? How was your catch this year? Then I might be more apt to read your comments. Since the article is about the catch.

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    • Haven’t fished for a living for about 8 years, SO. Do a bit of sport fishing for salmon and halibut in saltwater and this year picked up a few sockeyes with a PU gillnet in SE.

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  2. Bill Y: you clearly do not know how this works. Johnstone’s resignation was a professional courtesy for the benefit of a new Governor, not because he did not want the job. After all, he applied for the next term and that seems to suggest he wanted another three years. And pretty sure if he had known Roland Maw was going to be appointed in his place he would not have been so helpful to Walker. Huge mistake to appoint Maw. And his felony trial is still pending. It is hard to understand why you are so obtuse about this process and how it works. It is hard to admit when you are wrong. But that is the case with you.

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    • AF, If you look into it you will see that the reason Johnstone resigned early is because Walker said he was not going to reappoint Johnston, when his term was up, and further he (Walkera) intended to appoint Maw to the position. While it may have been a courtesy to new Governor, I suspect it was more that Johnstone was plenty pissed about the situation he was getting over Maw not being given a hearing for F & G Commissioner. Also remember that the vote of the Board was unanimous to not give Maw a hearing. Nothing obtuse here!
      I agree that it was a mistake to appoint Maw but that is all water under the bridge. Who could have known he had such baggage, but Maw would probably not have been confirmed IMO, due to his wanting to reduce PU fish from 25/family to 15.

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      • Craig, I followed your postings, relative to Maw, at the time he was objecting to your saying you had talked to him on the phone. He did start to show some problems with his ethics, at that time, but even then nobody dreamt of the sort of baggage he was packing (not even you). I don’t know of what you speak, relative to his LE permits, but clearly somebody responsible for vetting him dropped the ball and made things rather embarrassing for Walker (after the fact).
        You clearly did us all a favor by putting Maw in your spotlight, but not even you had an inkling (at the time) to the baggage he was packing IMO. I also remember the fishing community going after you for your tactics but for your own reasons you felt the need to hang onto that tiger’s tail. Good on you!

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    • Johnstone’s resignation was the quintessential red-faced “you can’t fire me because I quit” scenario. This is fairly general knowledge. The exchange did not happen in private. Unfortunate that Craig is trying to turn this fish fight into a regional conflict, although I understand the strategy. Too bad his efforts have no respect for the truth. Unfortunate he doesn’t acknowledge that, even though Kenai’s mayor might be a part-time commercial fisherman, he’s spent countless hours and millions of City dollars to help make the Dipnet fishery more accessible and orderly for folks from all over, despite little to no assistance from State Government. It’s also laughable that Craig is already mourning the expected lower Dipnet harvest this year, given constant efforts to downplay success in the fishery and decrease participation. Contrary to his assertion, we welcome visitors down here on the Kenai and appreciate that tourism is a major industry. We like fishermen in general – regardless of their preferred user group. In Kenai, it’s ok for Sport, PU, and Commercial fishermen to break bread together. Think of it as a “safe space” for fishermen. Craig’s depressing coverage of our fisheries and inaccurate claims that fishing was a “bust” only served to reduce participation for the purpose of later doing exactly what he’s doing now. It’s cheap politics, plain and simple.

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      • Todd Smith: you call Kenai a “safe space ” for fishermen including sport, PU, and commercial? Now, that IS laughable! From what I have heard and read, some members of the Board of Fisheries who tried to pass laws in favor of sports and PU opportunities several years ago had to have police protection from angry and violent commercial fishermen. Apparently that is one of the reasons meetings are not held in Kenai.
        Medred’s articles are fact based and his research is quite accurate. You and your friends do not like the truth. I can understand why. Because with this year’s commercial fishing greed and the mismanagement of the fishery to the detriment of the hundreds of thousand anglers and dip netters in Anchorage and the Mat Su, the “sleeping tiger “has finally been awakened. Walker, whom you and your commercial friends raised so much money for, will be thrown out of office and the next Governor will do the same to Commissioner Cotten. Then the Gov will appoint BOF members who recognize that changing times require changing policy. Finally the resource will be managed for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who are entitled to their share of the resource instead of the few thousand people that own a monopoly in the form of valuable limited entry permits. The Governor over reached, the BOF did also, and the entitlement attitudes of the set net and drift fleet have started a movement that will end up with policy and management being finally in compliance with Alaska’s constitution.

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      • Todd: Why would the city of Kenai need assistance from the state? The Kenai dipnet fishery is the only Kenai public service on which, to my knowledge, the city MAKES money. As for the rest of this, Alaskans deserve to know how their resources are managed and how management affects the harvests of Cook Inlet salmon. The truth, whatever the truth is, rests in the numbers. People are capable of drawing their own conclusions there. I report. Everyone else gets to decide, and from the comments here, there are a lot of different conclusions drawn.

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      • Craig – the PU fishery was a State-created fishery dumped into the City of Kenai’s lap with zero oversight. Everyone else was more interested in keeping the masses happy than they were in managing the fishery. Kenai was left to enforce the fishery, clean up the polluted beaches, establish motor restrictions to clean up and quiet down, establish no wake zones to protect property and habitat, and create responsible access points, parking, and facilities. Thank goodness they have done so in a socially, environmentally, and financially responsible way – many times in spite of opposition from various state/federal agencies. Excellent question why the city might need assistance from the state: on years when attendance is low, the City does not always make money. Take this year, for example, when you and others reported that fishing was “bust” despite the fact that it was quite good; that inaccurate reporting negatively impacted participation. The City of Kenai was still doing boat counts, permit counts, raking beaches, providing launch and beach access, running webcams, and enforcing the fishery, yet ADFG has no inseason indicator of harvest or success in that fishery with which to dispel the false rumors of bad fishing. When they were worried about making the escapement goals, we had nothing but a guess as to inseason harvest in the fishery, despite having daily harvest reporting in other sport and commercial fisheries. State fisheries managers were literally watching the city webcams to see what was going on in the PU fishery. Meanwhile you try to whip up resentment against the one local government who is responsibly tackling the issue of having the whole world invited to play in our backyard.

        Alaskans First – whoever you are – I could care less about an alleged verbal assault at the Soldotna Ice Rink decades ago. Really. Those guys all have canes by now. Welcome to 2017, where people can go fish however they please by day and drink beer around the same campfire by night. It’s not hard – all it takes is not being an asshole.

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  3. Bill Y.
    A governor will have the opportunity to replace all members of the joint BOF and BOG in the four years he/she is in office. So, again I say. Do you think any board member would cross the Governor. Not hardly! Technically the JT board does have the right to not send the Gov’s choice to him. But it has not happened and likely will never happen. Remember Governors do their own vetting when they select an acting Commissioner. And that person is generally well qualified. I fully agree that it is not a good process because anyone else applying is just wasting their time and has no chance of getting the job. At least at the time. They do get their name on the table for future possibilities.

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    • I suspect the process of selecting the Commissioner is responsible for the Gov’s choice being “generally well qualified.” That, in itself, is worth something IMO.
      It seems you are in favor of making the process more political.

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  4. This season’s management decisions and results from changes made by a biased, towards commercial interests, Board of Fisheries will likely wake up the hundreds of thousand non commercial fishers who will hand Walker his hat. They will elect someone who is committed to adhere to Alaska’s constitution and require the ADF&G to manage for the many and not for the few commercial fishing permit holders. The new Governor will appoint a Commissioner of ADF&G who will carry out that policy and then appoint Board of Fisheries members who will do the same. The people of Anchorage and the Mat Su Valley will finally have had enough.

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    • Exaggerate much AF???
      You might want to look at the process for choosing ADF&G Commissioner (Governor chooses from those presented to him by the Boards of Fish and Game). Surely a new Governor can start the process of changing these Boards but I suspect the “hundreds of thousand non commercial fishers” will not care a tinker’s damn about this, when it comes time to vote for Governor.
      Just my opinion!

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      • So are you saying that the Governor was caught unaware that the current ADFG commissioner, Sam Cotten, put forth his name to be Commissioner? Hah, now that is an exaggeration of the process. Of course the Governor picks who is going to be the ADFG commissioner. Yes, the joint boards of fish and game vet the submission, along with any other candidates who are foolish enough to submit their names (ala Roland Maw), but do you think that joint board, selected by the governor, is going to not support that nomination. What political planet do you live on? Get real.

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      • Bill Y. You are correct about the process. However in the real world the Governor announces his pick for Commissioner who then starts as acting Commissioner. Others who want the job apply and some along with the Governor’s selection are interviewed by the BOF who then forwards their recommendations to the governor. And in every case it is fully understood that the Governor will choose the person he selected for acting commissioner. Do you think the BOF members who are appointed by the Governor would cross him. Not hardly! Normally I would agree that the many sports and PU users do not organize and block vote. The next election may be different. They have someone from their area in the race who is very mindful of the perceived if not real problems with the lack of fish coming into the waters in their area. I hear countless comments about how there will be a change when Walker is handed his hat and a new Governor takes over. Like you, my opinion.

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      • Well Mavo,
        You need to look into the process along with AF. http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=process.jbselection

        Further, that joint board was most likely selected by a previous governor. While your position that the Governor does the selecting, and that the joint board just vets that selection, that is not how the process works. Frankly, if your position had an even slight chance of occurring I suspect the confirmation process before legislature would be more controversial.

        And Roland Maw was foolish to submit his name for several reasons: his prior relationship with B. of Fish and his maintaining residencies in more than one State and the same time.

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      • AF, your position that a governor has already appointed his board members and thus they would not cross him doesn’t hold water. That’s most likely not the case with a new governor, although the new governor will be most likely charged with re-appointing these members.
        Your assumption about not crossing the new governor is wishful thinking here and further this appointment also needs to be confirmed by legislature. At any rate, this process has been determined to keep from happening what you suggest is happening. And you seem to be OK with making politics the determination, here.
        I recall some years ago a former Director of Game running for Governor on the idea of returning our game laws to something prior to “subsistence priority”. He got almost no support in his party’s primary and this is, in my opinion, because Alaskans were (and still are) more interested in jobs.
        You think that Alaskans will be voting for governor, based on salmon-I think you are dreaming!

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      • Yankee Dude – you can’t be that obtuse, can u? While the prior Governor appointed the sitting members of the BOF and BOG, the newly elected Governor by definition is going to be the person to make the next round of appointments to the board – and most board members want to be reappointed. For giggles and grins, how many times has a Governor’s choice as acting commissioner who then submits their name to the joint board not been approved versus how many times they have been rubber stamped, I mean approved, by the joint board? The only degree the last two Commissioners have needed is a CFEC permit.

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      • OK Mavo “Dude”, you’ve made an assumption you can’t back up. “Most Board members want to be reappointed” is nice to throw around but frankly, the BofF positions tend to be thankless jobs with essentially no monetary reason to serve. And further, in case you don’t remember Karl Johnstone offered to resign his position early in order for Roland Maw to “hit the ground running.”
        Essentially, you are full of chit!

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  5. Nice fish. You gonna eat that? hahaha

    Perhaps it’s easier to wait for you to catch it, then steal it from you.

    Scott McMurren AlaskaTravelgram.com TourSaver.com (907)727-1113

    >

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