Snow and ice still cover the tributaries of the Susitna River basin, but already the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is talking about closing the Chinook salmon fishery for the 2018 season.
The agency’s fear for the drainages of both the Susitna and Little Susitna mirrors the 2017 fear for the 24,000-square-mile Copper River basin : No king salmon.
In the case of the Copper last year, the state was faced with a scientifically calculated Chinook forecast calling for the return of 29,000 of the fish – only 5,000 more than were needed for spawning in streams located behind a gauntlet of commercial, subsistence, personal-use dipnet, and rod-and-reel fisheries.
The agency has no forecast for the Susitna drainage and is operating on a gut feeling the run this year could be even worse than the run last year when the Little Susitna barely met its minimum spawning goal and the Deshka River fell more than 1,500 fish short.
The Little Su and the Deshka are the most popular king salmon rivers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage. The Little Su was 425 fish above its goal of 2,100 Chinook last year. The Deshka count of 11,356 missed the 13,000 fish goal.
A tiny commercial setnet fishery for kings around the mouth of the Susitna reported a catch of 2,121 Chinook. How many of those fish were bound for the Deshka is anyone’s guess.
Anglers in the Mat-Su Valley at that time made a deal with commercial fishermen to support the new set-gillnet fishery with the understanding that if runs weakened in the future, or if the sport fishery expanded to the point where it could harvest the entire surplus of kings, the new commercial fishery would be closed.
The harvestable surplus in the sport fishery ran out years ago, but Fish and Game officials and the state Board of Fisheries then argued they needed the setnet fishery to remain in place as a tool to assess the strength of Chinook returns to the Susitna.
Now, said Valley fishing guide Andy Couch, the state is getting ready to close the commercial fishery along with all of the sport king fisheries in the Susitna drainage and eliminate any means of in-season assessment of run strength.
Sport fisheries director Tom Brookover was not returning phone messages on Friday, though his recording said he was somewhere in the Fish and Game building.
Couch said he, Ben Allen of Miller’s Riverboat Service, and Chad Lipse of Lipservice Fishing Charters met with Brookover and Cotten last week, and were told to expect “all king salmon commercial and sport fisheries in northern Cook Inlet” to be closed, except for hatchery-supported fisheries in Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage and at the Eklutna power plant trailrace along the Matanuska River.
The “bottom line was Commissioner Cotten could not see having a Deshka River king salmon fishery of any kind in light of the Department’s projection that the Deshka river king salmon return may not have enough king salmon to meet the minimum escapement goal range,” Couch messaged.
Cotten is a 70-year-old, former commercial who sometimes seems clueless as to sport-fishing issues. In a discussion last August, he couldn’t seem to understand why Valley anglers were upset about a big harvest of silver salmon in Cook Inlet followed by a ban on bait in the Little Susitna upstream from that catch because of very weak early return of silvers to that stream.
Cotten said he’d been running his boat up the rivers at the head of Turnagain Arm and finding plenty of silver salmon to catch. He didn’t seem to grasp that most Valley angers are roadside fishermen lacking expensive equipment to get to the fish, or that it’s a 90-mile drive from Wasilla to the head of the Arm or more for someone with a cabin in the Willow area looking to fish the creek of the same name once a prime location for silver salmon.
Couch said Cotten and Brookover did indicate that if they closed the Chinook season, as they apparently intend to do, they might reopen it later if they decided there were enough king salmon, but how exactly that determination would be made is unclear.
The two fishery managers “did not provide any specifics on what would be used to evaluate Susitna River drainage king salmon escapement or at what level of escapement the Department would deem appropriate to reopen which Susitna River drainage king salmon fisheries,” Couch said.
“The Department’s discussed management seems to be far from what could be described as a consistent and predictable sport fishery. Such management would make it extremely difficult for anglers and businesses to plan any king salmon fishing ahead of time — kind of a radical departure from what the Department has been doing.”
Until last year, when the agency imposed a blanket ban on all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper River basin because of fears of a disastrous return that turned out to be fairly healthy, state policy had been to open sport fisheries with tight restrictions – bait bans and/or catch-and-release only – if runs were thought to be weak.
That, as Couch noted, provided at least some opportunity for anglers and some gage on how many fish were returning. Crappy fishing, even if linked in part to a ban on the use of bait, usually indicates a weak return of salmon, whereas a lot of people hooking into fish usually indicates the opposite.
“Many anglers and businesses have clued into the past pattern and scheduled their trips earlier in the season for more predictable king salmon fishing/harvest opportunity,” Couch added.
Not only will guides and fishing business now have to start notifying clients who booked early that fishing seasons have closed – if the state ever gets around to officially announcing the closure – they’ll be stymied as to what to tell people about later fishing opportunities.
It’s hard to book business for a fishery with no known opening date and possibly no opening date.
Copper River take two
The situation is shaping up almost exactly like that in the Copper Basin last year, although in that case Fish and Game had at least provided some certainty by this date.
The agency on March 6, 2017 announced “all king salmon sport fisheries in the Upper Copper River drainage will be closed, this includes catch-and-release fishing;” the harvest of kings in the personal-use dipnet fishery would be prohibited; subsistence fishermen would be limited to two king salmon per seasons despite state and federal laws saying they are entitled to a harvest priority; and the Cordova-based commercial fishery would be sharply restricted in an effort to maximize the early season catch of sockeye salmon and minimize the catch of kings.
Outrage followed. Struggling tourism businesses in Glennallen, Copper Center and along the Richardson Highway, and personal-use fishermen from Fairbanks petitioned Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten for a review of the management plan.
They argued that instead of getting a fair share of the harvest they were getting no share of the harvest. Cotten told them to go fish.
Commercial fishermen argued the forecast had to be faulty, and accused Fish and Game of trying to amp up a sport-commercial fish war though there was never any evidence to support that theory.
The situation didn’t begin to settle down until it started to become clear that the forecast – and forecasting salmon returns is a decidedly difficult business – was badly wrong.
By the end of the fishing season, the anticipated return of only 29,000 Chinook mushroomed to closer to 45,000 to 48,000 with some 32,000 to 35,000 making it into the river and the rest caught by Cordova-based commercial fishermen.
The official commercial catch of 13,100 fell below the 10-year harvest average of 15,400, but astronomical prices – fueled in large part by that early forecast predicting prized Copper River kings would be a rare commodity – made up for some of the shortfall in the catch.
Since there has been no official word yet on the Cook Inlet king fishery, it remains to be seen what actually happens there, but Couch was not optimistic.