Both economically and biologically, the commercial fisheries of Alaska’s Cook Inlet are imprecise and archaic. And now come federal regulators to try to apply Information Age precision to this chaos of nature and the graying Machine Age technology developed to maximize fisheries exploitation.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, one of eight federal bodies established to manage deepwater fisheries off the coasts of the United States after the government established a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 1976, has before it this week a 152-page paper compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff that tries to bend stiff federal fishing regulations to fit a fluid fishery whipsawed by the vagaries of the Alaska and North Pacific environments.
Because of the many variables, Alaska salmon management has always been both an “art and science,” as a publicist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service described it earlier this year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Katrina Liebich was writing about the complicated management of the Yukon River, a 2,000 mile-long-waterway through the heart of 49th state fed by hundreds of tributaries home to different salmon stocks, but she could have been writing about many Alaska salmon fisheries.
Cook Inlet is a 180-mile-long waterway punching into the gut of Alaska and fed by dozens of tributaries home to different stocks of salmon. It is ecologically far richer than the Yukon but does share one strong similarities with the north’s famous big river, the complicated nature of its mixed-stock, salmon fishery.
“In the past, folks just went fishing,” Yukon fisheries biologist Gerald Maschmann told Liebich. ” They looked at their environment, and said ‘it’s time to go fishing,’ and they went. There was no schedule; there were no openings and closings. Unfortunately we’re no longer in that kind of environment.”
The long and complicated “Discussion Paper for Revisions to the Fishery Management Plan for the Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ Off Alaska” presented the Fisheries Management Council only underlines how complicated things can get as the feds try to shoehorn a state salmon fishery into a box defined by the EEZ, over-fishing limits (OFL), acceptable-catch limits (ACL) and maximum sustained yield (MSY), along with vessel monitoring (VM) and electronic monitoring (EM) to catch anyone who might try to game the system.
The acronyms that litter the discussion paper can make a layman’s head spin. Anyone trying to attend the Council meetings in Anchorage this week and into the next is sure to find herself or himself wrestling with this problem. The Council’s Advisory Panel starts consideration of the discussion paper on Thursday.
Federal managers tried to avoid this salmon quagmire in 2012 by punting to state biologists who have been dealing with the art of Alaska salmon management in Cook Inlet, off the mouth of the Copper River and along the Alaska Peninsula with considerable success since shortly after statehood in 1959.
Five years ago, the NOAA paper notes, the Council “determined that “the state was managing the salmon fisheries within these three area consistent with the policies and standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act; the Council and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) did not have the expertise or infrastructure to manage Alaska salmon fisheries, and federal management of these areas would not serve a useful purpose or provide additional benefits and protections to the salmon fisheries within these areas. The Council recognized that salmon are best managed as a unit throughout their range and parsing out a portion of a fishery because it occurred in federal waters and applying a separate management structure on that piece of the fishery would not be the optimal way to manage salmon. The Council also recognized the state’s long-standing expertise and infrastructure for salmon management and the fact that the State has been adequately managing the salmon fisheries in Alaska since statehood. ”
Copper River and Alaska Peninsula fishermen had no problems accepting that position, but Cook Inlet fishermen threatened by a growing tourism industry and half the state’s booming urban population clustering in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area at the head of the Inlet feared state managers would force them to share more and more of their Inlet catch.
Enter the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.
The drift association – or UCIDA as it is known to everyone involved in Cook Inlet fisheries – is the region’s most powerful fisheries lobby.
“Incorporated in 1980 to represent the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders in Alaska’s Cook Inlet….UCIDA’s purpose is to enhance and perpetuate the interests of this valuable commercial salmon fishing industry,” the organization says on its webpage.
With a close connections to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and many politicians before him, UCIDA has been largely successful in that effort. The organization claimed credit for helping get Walker elected on an independent ticket in 2014, and whether they deserve credit or not, they did get results.
Walker wasn’t in office long before Anchorage’s Karl Johnstone was out as chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the state entity that sets fisheries management policy, and a Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen was named to fill his seat. Johnstone, a retired Alaska Superior Court judge and sport fisherman, was replaced by Roland Maw, the one-time executive director of UCIDA and a former college professor in Canada whose fisheries bona fides included a claim, sworn under oath, that he was the coauthor of a book that “received numerous public awards for the first scientific description and naming of ‘Bull Trout’ as a new species of char/trout.”
Maw didn’t last long on the Fish Board. Only a day after the discovery that he was claiming to be a resident of both Alaska and Montana, Maw resigned. He was later charged with a host of felonies that accused him of lying to obtain Alaska permanent fund dividends . His attorney managed to get the first indictment tossed on a technicality.
The state filed new charges in January of this year. Maw is now scheduled to go on trail in Juneau in November. He faces 12 felony charges related to theft from the Alaska Permanent Fund and several misdemeanor charges for allegedly lying on state documents.
Despite the charges hanging over his head, Maw has remained active in Alaska fish politics or fishtics, as it is often called. He was in attendance when Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, held a hearing in Soldotna to consider amendments to Magnuson-Stevens, and he was among a group of UCIDA officials meeting with Walker today. The subject of the latter meeting is unknown.
It was under the terms of Magnuson-Stevens that UCIDA in 2013 filed a federal lawsuit demanding the U.S. government take over management of salmon in the federal waters of Cook Inlet.
UCIDA believed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was preventing the gillnets of commercial fishermen from snagging their fair share of salmon and in the process letting too many escape into Inlet spawning streams.
Such fishing restrictions, UCIDA charged, violated the “maximum sustained yield” provision of Magnuson-Stevens.
“Right now, the state says ‘yeah, we’re doing it (fine), using the best science available,’ and we know it’s not true,” UCIDA president Dave Martin told the Homer News in 2013.
The Cook Inlet fisheries-management problem is the problem of many Alaska salmon fisheries. Commercial fishing takes places where sometimes dozens of different stocks of salmon of multiple species mix together.
In such situations, intensive fishing can threaten the weakest stocks in pool. The problem is not unique to Alaska.
“The impact of mixed stock fisheries can be greatest on the small stocks, especially if these are of low relative productivity,” note European scientists trying to manage Atlantic salmon on the other side of the globe….”‘Mixed stock fisheries present particular threats to conservation.”
Alaska state policy has historically been to put an emphasis on protecting weak stocks while harvesting as much of strong stocks as possible. This is a goal federal officials appear to endorse in the Inlet discussion paper.
“Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a (fisheries management plan) only has authority to manage the fisheries that occur in the EEZ,” NOAA staff wrote. “The Magnuson-Stevens Act is clear that nothing in the Magnuson-Stevens Act shall be construed as extending or diminishing the jurisdiction or authority of any state within its boundaries…. the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not provide authority for the Council to manage fisheries in state waters, which would be required for the Council to change escapement (spawning) goals or to allocate more salmon to a specific gear group, or to direct the State to make these types of changes.”
That position appears to make it near impossible for the Council to do what UCIDA wants – lower escapement goals and increase Inlet sockeye salmon harvests to eliminate what UCIDA considers “over-escapement” in the Kenai River.
Martin hammered the over-escapement theme just days ago in an interview with Peninsula Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl. As she reported:
“The organization’s line has been the same all along, he said — state management has not met the Magnuson-Stevens Act standard for sustainability and optimum yield, with state management plans leaving salmon unharvested and exceeding escapement goals on Cook Inlet freshwater systems.
“He cited the example of the 2017 season, when commercial fishermen were restricted from multiple regular fishing periods to boost sockeye salmon escapement. At the end of the season, Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers had either exceeded or come very close to the top ends of their escapement goals, once harvest above the in-river sonar counters was calculated. UCIDA has been claiming for years that the escapement goals are set too high, putting too many fish into the river system to allow for sustainable spawning and maximum yield for fisheries.”
“Over-escapement” has become a buzz word for the Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who regularly contend the region’s fisheries are being destroyed by too many salmon getting into rivers.
The view of anglers, personal-use dipnetters and subsistence fishermen – all of whom depend for their success on significant numbers of salmon making it back into the streams of their birth – is markedly different, as is the view of scientists.
The federal plan notes that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is geared more to preventing overfishing – a problem that has long plagued U.S. fisheries – than over-escapement, but the discussion paper devotes an entire section to the latter subject.
What that section says will not come as good news to UCIDA:
“Over-escapement has been a concern for some members of the public and perceived over-escapement is one reason UCIDA advocated for federal management of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery….(but) it is not possible to manage mixed salmon fisheries for maximum-sustained yield on all stocks and species in circumstances where the composition, abundance, and productivity of stocks and species in those fisheries vary substantially.”
Conceding that over-escapement is “controversial and complex, especially in regard to the management of Alaskan sockeye salmon,” the report goes on to summarize a state study of the issue:
“Over-escapement occurred at least once in the recent 15-year period for 37 of the 40 sockeye salmon stocks examined in the ADF&G study. The short-term cost of over-escapement is the harvest foregone as a consequence of escapement exceeding the escapement goal.”
Commercial fishermen, in all 37 of the cases, clearly lost money, the report said, but the loss was generally “small, less than 5 percent of the harvest,” although there were cases in which commercial fishermen lost 10 to 20 percent of the fish they might have been able to catch were the fisheries managed to a strict, maximum-harvest standard.
Most of those stocks, the report added, were little fished because they were in areas with small commercial fisheries or because the salmon came back in such large numbers they overwhelmed the fishery, as happened with sockeye in Bristol Bay this summer.
As for the consequences, the reported noted that in most cases, “the long-term biological consequences of over-escapement were a decrease in (future) yields….(But) In general, over-escapement and the associated decreased yield are not long-lasting for highly exploited stocks because future yields will increase as a consequence of lower future escapements and diminished competition.
“For some stocks, there was little evidence for decreased yields with over-escapement. The observed exploitation rates for these stocks were higher and at times exceeded the maximum-sustained yield exploitation rate. For these stocks, yields tended to increase with increasing escapement even when over-escapement occurred.”
The Kenai River, and the nearby Kasilof River, return millions of sockeye salmon to Cook Inlet every year, and they have become the tail that shakes the entire Inlet salmon.
Approximately 1.3 million sockeye went past a sonar counter on the lower Kenai this year. State biologists are still calculating how many were caught in sport fisheries upstream from the counter, but the catch is expected to be in the range of 300,000 to 400,000 fish.
The total, sockeye sport catch has ranged from about 300,000 to 500,000 since 2007, according to Fish and Game data. Some of those fish are caught in the Kasilof, but most are landed on the Kenai.
Sport fishery managers suspect the 2017 harvest will come in closer to 300,000 than 400,000 given poor fishing in-river during the early season. Early commercial harvests in the Inlet were so big that only 307,000 sockeye made it into the Kenai before Fish and Game ordered an emergency closure of commercial netting.
The commercial catch at that time stood at approximately 1.3 million sockeye, about 76 percent of the projected commercial harvest of 1.7 million. After the pause to let sockeye into the Kenai, commercial fishermen would go on to catch about 500,000 more. They ended the season with a catch of more than 1.8 million.
The Kenai spawning escapement is likely to total about 1 million sockeye (1.3 million at the counter minus a 300,000 sport catch). The state’s sustainable escapement goal for the river – a moving target much debated over the years – is at this time set at 700,000 to 1.2 million salmon.
On occasion in the past decade, the Kenai has sometimes crept 5 or 10 percent over the upper limit of the goal, but such small over-escapements – if they even qualify as over-escapements given the scientific latitutde for debate – pale when compared to those elsewhere.
Bristol Bay, where over-escapements are something of the norm, suffered massive overages this year. Almost 4.3 million sockeye escaped up the Wood River, which has a maximum goal of 1.8 million. More than 2.8 million sockeye escaped up the Nushugak, which has a maximum goal of 900,000. More than 2 million went up the Alagnak River which has a goal of 320,000.
To match the levels of over-escapement of those Bay watersheds, 2.5 million or more salmon would have needed to pass the Kenai counter. The only time the river has come close to that number was in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil spill restricted fishing in the Inlet and 2.3 million sockeye made it into the Kenai.
KDLG-FM radio in Dillingham, which live-covered the Bristol Bay fishery, mentioned the over-escapements in its reporting, but made little of them. Bay fishermen seemed more upset about being put on limits by processors trying to stay ahead of what became an unexpected flood of fish than by too many fish getting in the rivers.
Recognized the difficulty of predicting salmon runs, as the Bay well illustrated this year, NOAA’s discussion paper concedes, “the state of Alaska’s escapement based management system is a more effective management system for preventing overfishing than a system that places rigid numeric limits on the number of fish that may be caught.”
A catch quota system, NOAA admits, is a poor alternative to a flexible system aimed at ensuring “surviving spawners will maximize present and future yields” by taking advantage of “escapement goals intended to maximize surplus productivity of future runs,” monitoring “actual run strength and escapement during the fishery,”and utilizing “in-season management measures, including fishery closures, to ensure that minimum escapement goals are achieved. Such an approach provides a more effective mechanism to prevent overfishing than a system that prescribes rigid catch limits before the season based on predictions of run strength.”
Magnuson-Stevens, however, sets out rules for managing by “over fishing limits” and “acceptable catch limits,” and the feds are now bound by court order to follow the federal act.
“ACLs and OFLs are required for all stocks or stock complexes in the fishery that are not managed under an international agreement, listed under the Endangered Species Act, or designated as hatchery stocks,” the report says.
The plan devotes pages and pages of type to ideas on possible ways to manipulate the inherently inflexible federal system. It suggests everything from trying to engage a cooperative management plan with the state, to setting some sort of minimum harvest limit for catches in the federal waters in the Inlet and letting the state handle everything else, to simply prohibiting commercial salmon harvests in federal waters.
The latter option would basically push all fishing back into state waters within three miles of the Inlet coastlines or north of Anchor Point. The federal waters just into the Inlet like thumb to a point just south of Kalgin Island.
Catches of Chinook (king) and pink salmon in the federal zone are generally small, but the report says 66 percent of chum, 53 percent of coho (silver), and 50 percent of sockeye catches have historically come from federal waters.
If the Council doesn’t let drifters in, the now-traditional commercial fishery of the Inlet will be dramatically altered. But if the Council does come up with a plan to open federal waters, drift gillnetters are likely to see key changes in the way they do business.
Federal law requires log books and vessel monitoring. The discussion paper says the feds need vessel monitoring to check for fishery discards, by-catch, and interactions with marine mammals and seabirds. There is even the suggestion that video monitoring might be a good idea.
“Fisheries…outside of Alaska are using video monitoring for compliance on small vessels,” the plan says. “This includes testing a compliance camera system in the Gulf of Maine groundfish fishery that is designed to detect compliance of full retention requirements. NMFS is also testing an electronic monitoring system in the Atlantic herring and Atlantic Mackerel mid-water trawl fisheries in an effort to address concerns about the incidental catch of river herring, shad, and haddock, as well as the amount of discarding at-sea.
“The use of camera monitoring systems under option 1 would be for compliance monitoring and thus catch enumeration would not be necessary. This is a simpler and potentially less expensive monitoring program than a program designed to enumerate (Cook Inlet) catch.”
A fiercely independent lot, the Inlet’s commercial fishermen are unlikely to take to the idea of the video-eye of Uncle Sam watching over their shoulders when they fish, but this is the Information Age, and what better way for bureaucrats to keep track of information?