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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.