The late arrivals

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The prize, a MatSu Valley coho salmon/ADF&G photo

The rains came to Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna rivers valley over the weekend. The water in local creeks and rivers rose. And the coho salmon, notorious for sprinting from the oceans to the mountains when the weather Gods signal, finally came.

Almost 2,000 rocketed through a weir on the Little Susitna River before water levels started to drop again on Tuesday. 

The only problem was there weren’t enough. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials Wednesday confessed they doubted the river will make the minimum spawning goal of 10,100, and moved to restrict Cook Inlet commercial fisheries to protect the fish. The sport fishery had been limited earlier in the month.

“The Little Susitna River coho salmon sustainable escapement goal (SEG) is 10,100–17,700 fish. Recent daily weir counts remain below average,” an emergency order from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said. “As of Aug. 15, total passage through the Little Susitna weir of 5,799 coho salmon projects that the minimum SEG will not be achieved.”

The emergency order halved the normal, 12-hour opening for set gillnet fishermen in the area around the mouth of the Little Su and on Fire Island just off the coast from Anchorage. Those are the areas where the most Little Su coho are caught.

If the Little Su fails to meeting spawning goals this year, it will mark the second year in a row the river has been over-harvested.

The Cook Inlet commercial catch of coho now stands at almost 240,000 fish, but the few other spawning tributaries to the Susitna and Matanuska rivers tracked by state fishery managers seem well on their way to meeting coho spawning goals.

More than 3,000 coho swarmed the Deshka River weir during a high water event on Tuesday, and that major spawning tributary to the Susitna River is now more than 2,000 fish above its minimum goal of 10,200, but still far from the top of the SEG at 24,100.

Jim Creek, a tributary to the Knik River, is also doing well. Almost half of all the coho to return this year passed the weir on Monday to push the count over 700, which is well within the escapement goal range of 450 to 1,400.

Mat-Su Valley anglers and tourist businesses, however, remain unhappy with the way the Cook Inlet commercial fishery has been managed. Many Kenai River salmon anglers feel the same way.

In keeping with the wishes of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, state fisheries managers aggressively prosecuted commercial drift gillnet fisheries in the Inlet. As a result, few sockeye got into the Kenai until after July 23, and the return to the Deshka – one of the Valley’s most popular salmon streams – was held in check until early August. 

By Board dictate, commercial fishery harvests are a priority in the Upper Inlet in July and early August. About 1,100 people own limited entry permits to commercial fish the area, but only about 1,000 per year fish.

To date, they’ve caught 1.8 million sockeye (red), 237,000  coho (silver) and 7,000 Chinook (king) salmon as part of a harvest total of 2.6 salmon. Rod and reel catches from around the region are not yet available, but tens of thousands of anglers annually catch about 400,000 sockeye and 150,000 coho.

“At this point in the season,  even if coho salmon were to make a dramatic late push into Mat-Su Valley and other northern Cook Inlet streams, forgone sport harvest opportunities, caused by large commercial coho harvests, in late July and early August can not be overcome,” Little Su guided Andy Couch observed in the MatSu Frontiersman newspaper. “Summer visitor numbers are already in decline, and…the small economic boost from central district-wide drift  gillnet coho salmon harvests in late July and early August pales in comparison to the huge economic loss and future economic losses for northern Cook Inlet businesses dependent upon healthy coho salmon sport fisheries.

“Will anyone in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) commercial division be held accountable for the history of such poor decisions?”

Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten,  a former commercial fisherman, is to meet with Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission on Tuesday to discuss management of the 2017 salmon fishery.









8 replies »

  1. Craig, you forgot to list the 2017 commercial harvest of Chum Salmon in UCI. 234,000 Chums were also slaughtered by commies, yet 85,000 of them still made it to the Little Susitna Weir. No mention of the near limitless opportunity provided by that run, and no questions about how they differentiate Chum from Coho at the Little Su weir. You also again focused on Mr. Couch’s frustration and discontent without mentioning his fishing success or lack thereof. I’ve heard that guides have been pulling daily Coho limits on the Little Su, just like Kenai. Not sure why you are so focused on the negative slant when it comes to fishing, or so fixated on commercial harvest while being so dismissive of the many other factors involved.

    • Todd: i think the issue here is that you don’t recognize the problem. if you, or any other commercial fishing entity, were to propose putting a fish trap (or some other means of holding and selecting for chum) at the mouth of the Little Su, i would be all for it. chum are generally as hard to catch in freshwater as sockeye, and as we both know from Kenai experience, catching sockeye is a density-dependent business.
      when they travel in big, densely packed schools, it’s easy. and when they don’t, it’s difficult. that said, sockeye are also a lot more desirable species in freshwater fisheries than chums, which quickly start to look like the “dog salmon” they are popularly called.
      all of which brings us to the real issue here, which is not how to maximize the CATCH of Alaska salmon, but the VALUE. there is a lot of value in anglers, guided or otherwise, pulling coho out of the Little Su. there is more value in that than in whatever number of chums escape or over-escape at this point. but if you can figure out a way to catch a lot of those Susitna chums, or pinks, without a serious bycatch of far, far, far more valuable species, ping me. i’m all in on that. the state should do that. it brings value. meanwhile, i have a business idea for you. you need to start a sport fishing hotline, because you always seem to hear where people are pulling out limits. a lot of people could use that intel.

      • I completely agree, Craig. It’s a value proposition. What gives the state the biggest bang for the resource. That applies to all resources, not just fish.

      • Thanks for the education on Chums Craig. While you might not value them the same as other Salmon, they are pretty fun to catch on a rod and not bad to eat. Did you know that Chum roe makes some of the best Salmon Caviar? Regardless, there is VALUE in any accessible fish that is fun to catch. I do recognize the problem, and it does have to do with VALUE. The problem is that you and others – in your Jihad against commercial fishing – constantly put a negative spin on every fishery in Alaska. This DEVALUES sport and comm fisheries alike. The negative press complicates management, decreases sport/pu participation, and negatively affects commercial opportunity and markets. You keep betting on failure so it comes as no surprise that a sarcastic retort is your only response to my repeatedly pointing out that success is pretty widespread in AK’s fisheries. Thanks for the business idea – I was thinking I could start a fishing hotline and you could try taking an objective look at the facts before writing a fish story.

      • Todd: if you took that as a sarcastic retort, you were simply wrong. i’m all for finding clean ways to commercially harvest otherwise unwanted salmon in this state. if someone could find a way to harvest a significant number of those chum, which aren’t highly desired in the sport fishery, to strip their eggs and have the carcasses made into dog treats or fish meal, it would be a good thing.

  2. It has already been established that the price for commercially caught salmon in Alaska is on the decline due to pressure from less expensive farming industries in Norway and Chile. I believe the mandate for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is to manage the game resources for the benefit of the State of Alaska residents. In this case, the commercial fishing industry, composed mostly of individuals not completely depending on fishing for their livelihood, is a minority.

    UAA did a study some years ago about the financial benefit to the state and local economies for a commercial caught salmon versus a private caught salmon. The financial benefit of a private caught salmon to the local economy was many times greater than commercial caught. The state is allowing the commercial industry to rape the natural fish population based on a powerful lobby and key appointments of commercial fisherman. A prime example is the IPHC, a commission comprised of members from Canada and the US that give among many things, recommendations. to the governments of Canada and the US on the harvesting limits of Halibut split between commercial and private industries.

    The board that makes the recommendations only has two members, one each from Canada and the US, that represent the sport fishing industry, while the commercial interests have six seats, processors have three, government departments have five, natives have two and scientists have two. The board is obviously stacked to represent the commercial industry and the US has yet to decline implementing recommendations from this group. A few years ago, the private halibut catch limit was reduced to two per person here in Alaska. The commercial harvest was increased to over 99% of the halibut catch. It’s like having the fox manage the hen house. Eventually, it will be like the East Coast commercial fishery. stocks will be depleted and worthless.

    What we need is a Governor and Legislators who care enough about Alaska to demand and implement change to the management strategy of our fish resources. The commercial fishing lobby is strong especially for out of state interests. It takes Alaska residents getting involved with our elected officials enough to push past the lobbyist and do the right thing for Alaskans. If Alaska did not have the commercial fishing industry or if it was severely reduced, what kind of private harvest could be sustained in our river systems, especially in Cook Inlet? How many fisherman come to Alaska hoping to catch a Kenai King or limit on Reds and go home disappointed because of the lack luster runs? They come up and pay to stay in hotels or lodges. They buy food and gas and pay for charters for halibut and salmon and the local economy is bolstered.

    I can’t speak for Bristol Bay, but if the commercial fisherman were kicked out of Cook Inlet, the economies of the cities throughout the region would not suffer but thrive. The private catch limits for sport caught fish could be increased significantly and you would never worry about the escapements being too small. Fisherman throughout the globe would flock to Alaska to fish the MatSu or Kenai areas. They would pay for the hotels, car rentals, gas and food for the trip. They would gladly buy their fishing license knowing they will be shipping home cases of sport caught fish. Charter businesses would excel. Manage the resource for sport fisherman and bolster the local economy instead of for the commercial interests where most of the money goes out of state and the locals who do fish commercially are only supplementing their already well paid careers as teachers, doctors, lawyers and such.

    OK. Sorry for the rant. I’m off my soap box.
    Mel S.

    • I was born and raised in kenai alaska. My wife is an Alaska native. I commercial fish year-round. 70% of Alaska commercial permits are held locally in state. Maybe you should take your soap box to Dillingham, Kodiak, Sandpoint, Cordova or one of a hundred towns that relies on commercial fishing and spout your hate. Let me know how it goes for you…..

  3. It might be time for a new Commissioner of ADF&G and a re balanced Board of Fisheries to, as a matter of policy, provide a fair “allocation” of a specific number of Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho to dip netters and anglers on the Kenai, Deshka, Little Su, and perhaps other running waters.The policy should require that the Upper Cook Inlet fisheries be managed to assure that these allocations be met while at the same time require the Dept to achieve proper escapement ( spawning) goals. No need for inriver goals if there are allocations. Perhaps use an average of prior harvest by dip netters to start. Then pick a number for anglers that fairly represent expected harvest when there is assured opportunity through an allocation. Commercial users would have all fish over and above the allocations and what is needed for escapement. Use creel
    Samples, dip net samples and other info to determine harvest levels in season and combine that info with previous year’s harvest data to determine any fisheries harvest level. And finally remove language that any species is to be managed ” primarily ” for any specific user group.
    Of course to be able to accomplish this policy change we will need a new Governor who
    “gets it”, and who will hand Cotten his hat and then appoint the appropriate new Board members.

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