A news analysis
The mayor of Kenai, Alaska is “extremely disappointed” with the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and the mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough less than pleased but “satisfied” with the Board’s big compromise.
The big compromise itself? The Board will avoid both Wasilla and Kenai in favor of a 2020 meeting in Anchorage.
So contentious has become the issue of Cook Inlet fishery management that politicians now argue over minutiae while the bigger issues plaguing the Inlet’s fisheries are ignored.
Three years from now – three years – the Board will hold its annual discussion of regulatory changes for Cook Inlet fisheries management in the state’s largest city, which just happens to be located between Kenai to the south and the Mat-Su to the north.
Mayors from both areas wanted the Board meeting in their hometowns instead so the locals could lean on the Board to favor local fishermen.
“Having the UCI (Upper Cook Inlet) meeting in Anchorage every 3 years for 21 years is disingenuous to the many folks on the Kenai, representing all user groups, that would like to participate in the public process,” Kenai mayor Brian Gabriel charged in a statement.
The Kenai is home to the Inlet’s largest commercial fishery and the world-famous Kenai River, which is the tail that shakes the dog of Inlet fisheries. For decades now, efforts to manage two rivers – the Kenai and the nearby Kasilof – for maximum sockeye salmon returns have largely dictated how the entire Inlet gets managed.
As a result, salmon bound for spawning streams in the massive Susitna River drainage of the Mat-Su have suffered. The problem is easy to understand if you look at the Inlet not as an arm of the Pacific Ocean, but as a big river cutting into the gut of Alaska.
Think of this as the Yukon River of Southcentral Alaska with the Mat-Su as Canada, but lacking the governmental authority to negotiate a treaty to control downriver fisheries. Canada sits at the far end of a 1,980-mile long salmon pipeline, and it has long had issues with U.S. management of the 1,265 miles of the river downstream from the border.
It wasn’t until 2002 that an agreement was finally negotiated to grant Canada what it thought to be its fair share of Yukon salmon. The country won the right to 20 to 26 percent of the total allowable catch of Chinook, the big kings of the Pacific, and 29 to 35 percent of the allowable harvest of Yukon chum salmon.
The Mat-Su is the poor sister at the end of the pipeline from which Kenai-based commercial fisheries pull millions of salmon per year.
“The meeting location for the Upper Cook Inlet regulatory meeting has been a political football for the last 20 years,” reporter Elizabeth Earl observed in the Peninsula Clarion. “The last meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula was held in 1999, when some board members claimed they felt threatened by some attendees’ behavior. The main source of contention is between user groups — as the most populous area in Alaska, Upper Cook Inlet hosts vast numbers of subsistence and sport fishermen as well as multimillion dollar commercial fisheries. Debate at the meetings, which last about two weeks, can be heated.”
About the latter observation, there is no doubt. But for all the heat that has surrounded Inlet fisheries, the real problems facing fisheries management in the big body of water out the front window of Alaska’s largest city have gone largely undiscussed.
Real problem #1
The Inlet has too many commercial permit holders. The ratio of permit numbers to fish available is way out of whack with other Alaska fisheries.
After Alaska voters in 1972 approved a Constitutional amendment to establish what is called “limited entry” in the state’s commercial fisheries, state officials established a set number of permits to be allowed for each fishery to “promote conservation and sustained yield management and (the) economic health and stability of commercial fishing,” as Frank Homan, the one-time chairman of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission observed.
The state set the number of permits for Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest red salmon fishery, at 2,915. Smaller numbers of permits were handed out in smaller fisheries.
There were 1,319 issued for upper Cook Inlet – 573 of them for drift netting salmon, 746 for set netting salmon.
To the east in Prince William Sound, there were a total of 597 permits – 567 drift, 30 setnet – issued for fishing king and sockeye salmon in the Sound or off the mouth of the Copper River.
Copper River commercial fishermen – with their slick promotion of Copper River salmon as a special, first-of-the-season fish – have managed to create a highly profitable fishery in the years since limited entry began in 1974.
Real Problem #2
Alaska commercial fisheries are 21st Century businesses operating with technology that dates back to the prehistoric Middle East.
In 2016 the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the politically powerful lobby for drift-net fishermen in the Inlet, issued a report claiming Inlet fisheries were under-harvested to the tune of about 18.5 million salmon worth tens of millions of dollars. Of 23 million harvestable salmon returning to the Southcentral region, the report argued, only about 4.5 million get killed in commercial, sport or personal-use fisheries.
“If harvested in the commercial fishery, the 23 million salmon would be worth over $150 million dollars at the first wholesale value level,” the report went on to claim. That claim is harder to pin down given the shifting prices for salmon, but there is no doubt that salmon worth tens of millions of dollars could be harvested but aren’t.
UCIDA is right.
Almost 90,000 chum salmon went up the Little Susitna River this year. The state has no spawning goal for Little Su chum, but there is no reason to believe the river needs more than the 19,000 to 24,000 that returned every year from 2012 through 2014.
The semi-remote but still road accessible Little Su is a very popular stream for Mat-Su Valley anglers, but they’re not much interested in chums which are generally hard to catch and start to deteriorate quickly after entering freshwater.
Were there some way to harvest these chums without catching the coho (silver) salmon prized by anglers important to Mat-Su tourism businesses, at least 65,000 chums could have been caught at the mouth of the Little Su and sold commercially this year.
And it’s not that the technology doesn’t exist. Fish traps that could allow for chums to be caught while cohos were allowed to pass have been around for centuries, but they were banned by Alaska at the time of statehood because commercial fishermen didn’t like them.
The reason they didn’t like them was because most were controlled by Seattle-based commercial fishing interests. Today the entire Alaska fishing industry is controlled by Seattle-based interests, but the traps remain banned although there are many places in which they would appear useful for making it possible to harvest all those underharvested fish UCIDA tabulated.
The ancient technology now in use doesn’t work for this task for the simple reason that commercial fishermen are capitalists. It is in their interest to catch the most valuable fish, not necessarily the most abundant.
When the drift fleet was given an opening high in the upper part of the Inlet in early August of this year and found the most valuable species around at the time to be coho, the fleet jumped on them. It caught about 90,000 in two days. Coho angling in the Little Su went flat. It wouldn’t pick up until more coho showed up late in the season.
The good news was that a lot of coho showed up late and the Little Su more than met its spawning goal, but that brings up:
Real problem #3
Conservation and wise management are the only two words needed here.
The first is without doubt the most import. Cook Inlet is home to eight of what the Department of Fish and Game calls “stocks of concern.” Seven of those are Chinook (king) salmon stocks apparently little affected by the commercial fisheries.
Most of those fish are, or should be, through the Inlet and into their natal streams by the time the commercial fishery really amps up.
One stock, however, is a signficant issue. Fish and Game has struggled for years to meet escapement goals for Susitna River sockeye salmon. And there is no doubt as to problems in the Susitna and its biggest tributary, the Yentna.
Northern pike have invaded. Disease has shown up.
Shell Lake on the Yentna, which as late as 2006 saw a return of almost 70,000 sockeye, had fewer than 150 come back this year. In 2016, the he Board was asked to declare the Shell Lake sockeye a stock of concern, but balked.
“The challenge would be for Fish and Game to determine how to reduce harvest on those sockeye specifically, especially in the marine fishery, where set gillnet and drift gillnet fishermen can harvest sockeye of mixed stocks,” wrote Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl.
Trying to protect weak stocks of salmon in a mixed-stock salmon fishery is a management nightmare. The only way to do it in the upper Inlet is to reduce the overall commercial harvest. That might cost commercial fishermen tens of thousands of dollars to save a few fish – if that many.
Such a decision would not be well received by UCIDA or other commercial fishing lobbies on the Kenai Peninsula, and those organizations share office space with Fish and Game in Soldotna. Imagine what fun it would be for a state fisheries biologist to go to work after ordering fishing closures that take a big bite out of the potential income of commercial fishermen to save a handful of fish.
Sensible economic management for maximum benefit to the state faces a similar problem. The past summer is almost a case study.
To maximize the commercial catch, the state allowed significant commercial fishing in the lower Inlet early in the season. By July 22 this year, the Kenai commercial catch stood at 1.3 million sockeye, and the number of fish in-river at 307,000, about 150,000 sockeye behind the pace to meet a scaled-back, in-river goal of 900,000.
Because of the low number of sockeye entering the river, both sport and personal-use dipnet fisheries – two big tourist draws for the Peninsula in the summer – were sputtering at a time when they should have been screaming hot.
The situation was so bad fishery managers late in the moth shut down a commercial opening to allow more fish into the river. That decision caused an immediate uproar. Commercial fishermen were angry about the closure even though the Board had done all it could to stack the deck in their favor before the season again.
The Board established shifting goals for in-river returns based on the estimated size of the sockeye turn. The fewer the fish overall, the smaller the in-river goal. If fewer than 2.3 million salmon were expected to return the Inlet, the minimum goal dropped to 900,000.
If more than 4.6 million were forecast to return, the minimum goal rose to 1.1 million. If the return was between the upper projection and the lower projection, the return minimum was 1 million.
The goals were all set to maximize the commercial harvest. The scientifically established “optimum escapement goal” (the spawning goal) for the river is 700,000 to 1.4 million fish. The OEG as it is called is the number of salmon escaping all fishermen to reach the spawning grounds.
The in-river sport fishery catches up to 300,000 above the Kenai’s salmon sonar-counter. So if 1 million get past the commercial fishery and the dipnet fishery in the mouth of the river, about 700,000 would spawn – the minimum of the OEG.
Kenai commercial fishermen argue that anything much above the OEG minimum is “over-escapement” that could threaten their bottom line years down the road. There is some evidence to indicate that the ratio of return-per-spawner is better at the lower end of the OEG range than the higher end, but the correlation is by no means direct.
And that really doesn’t matter in a fishery where commercial fishing is the management priority from July 1 to August 15. Thus the commercial fishery, and managers with Fish and Game who regulate the fishery, end up dictating how many fish make it through the gauntlet of various net fisheries in that period.
The Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan sets the stage to ensure the state gets the maximum commercial catch but doesn’t even contemplate how to manage for the maximum Inlet salmon value.
A fisheries economist might be able to advise the Board as to how to manipulate various harvest strategies to get the maximum economic return out of all Cook Inlet fisheries, but Fish and Game has no fishery economist.
And if it did, the first thing she or he would likely tell the Board is that there are too many commercial fishing permits in the Inlet, and that the political push from this overload of permit holders is driving the whole management process.
But nobody wants to talk about that.