Salmon struggle

fish wars

National Geo Wild reality TV show

The snow had stopped falling on the Kenai Peninsula on Tuesday, but plenty of ice was still bobbing around in Cook Inlet. Far to the north, Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom was leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on the stretch run to Nome on the shore of the frozen Bering Sea.


And the Cook Inlet fish wars that normally wait until summer were already heating up.

Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game  Sam Cotten kicked things off last week by revealing that the state agency that has made it a policy to try to maximize commercial harvests of salmon was thinking about closing all of the Susitna River drainage to king salmon fishing in May and June because there might, maybe, could be a weak return.

Then Gov. Bill Walker upped the ante by announcing he planned to name a commercial fishing activist from Kodiak to fill the one seat on the state Board of Fisheries held by a resident of Alaska’s largest city.

And if all that wasn’t enough, there was a rumor circulating among fishermen everywhere that Board member Orville Huntington from Huslia in Central Alaska had agreed to vote to move a 2020 meeting of the Board to Kenai at the behest of the governor in order to gain reappointment on a term due to expire at the end of June.

“There’s no truth to it,” Huntington said Tuesday when reached by telephone in Fairbanks. “It’s just what people want to think.”

What a lot of people seemed to want to think was that Walker, a friend to outlaw former fisherman Roland Maw from Kasilof, was trying to stick it to subsistence, personal-use and sport fishermen.

Welcome to battleground Cook Inlet, the arm of the Gulf of Alaska that laps at the beaches of Anchorage and where commercial fishermen tangle with each other aggressively enough to have pulled Nat Geo Wild north to film the reality show “Alaska Fish Wars.”

And compared to how the Inlet’s commercial fishermen feel about subsistence, personal-use and sport fishermen, and how the latter feel about the former, the characters in Alaska Fish Wars are best friends.

Backing off

Cotten did ease off a wee bit on the blanket king closure this week. On Tuesday Fish and Game issued two emergency orders closing most king salmon fisheries in the Susitna basin as of May 1, but there were a couple of exceptions.

The Deshka and Yentna rivers will remain open to catch-and-release-only fishing, the order said. The Yentna, a major glacial tributary to the Su, is home to a number of remote lodges from the Yentna Station Roadhouse at the river’s big bend on north past Lake Creek and the community of Skwenta to the Talachulitna River.

All depend heavily on summer tourism which depends in large part on opportunities to fish for king salmon.

The Deshka, meanwhile, is an iron-colored tributary to the Susitna west of the community of Willow popular with many anglers in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area home to more than half the state’s population. Reachable only by boat, it is the favorite  “remote” fishery in the sprawling Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where tens of thousands flock to fish.

The Fish and Game order closed all road-accessible, king streams north of the roadside community of Houston on the George Parks Highway, but left roadside anglers an opportunity on the Little Susitna to the west of Wasilla.

Anglers there will be allowed to harvest king salmon four days per week – Friday through Monday – but will be limited to two kings for the season and the use of single-hook, unbaited lures at all times.

The decision to impose widespread bans and restrictions long before the season opens is based on a single salmon forecast for one river, the Deshka. The forecast calls for a return of 12,782 kings. That’s 128 less than the minimum spawning goal of 13,000.

But the forecast concedes a massive margin of error. The 12,782  estimate, is based on an 80 percent change the run will come in between 6,398 and 19,166 kings. There is a 20 percent change the run will be bigger or smaller than that range which has a high-end about three times greater than the low-end.

The lowest Deshka king run on record for the past 35 years is 9,660 in 2008. Research biologist Nick DeCovich conceded the iffiness of the calculations.

“There is uncertainty in the total 2018 Deshka River Chinook salmon forecast estimate,” he wrote. “One pattern to this uncertainty is that the models tend to over-forecast when runs are declining and under-forecast when they are rebounding. The Deshka Chinook salmon forecast has ranged from 5 percent to 30 percent from the actual run in the past seven years.”

At the moment, the Deshka is thought to be declining. The return last year was only about 53 percent of the 2016 return, and it was but 70 percent of the predicted 2017 return.blurb1

2017 Copper

But what happened last year in the massive Copper River drainage to the east of the Susitna complicates the picture.

The state for 2017 forecast a disastrous return of only 29,000 kings to the Copper based on a declining trend. The forecast was only about 5,000 more than the minimum spawning goal.

In response, the state closed all Copper Basin king sport fisheries; prohibited personal-use dipnetters from keeping kings, sliced off an allocation of 1,000 kings for subsistence fishermen with a federal harvest priority, committed the other 4,000 fish to a Cordova-based commercial fishery and went fishing under some stringent rules designed to minimize the catch of kings and maximize the catch of sockeye salmon returning at the same time.

The commercial gillnet fishery promptly snagged more than 9,000 kings in five brief openings in late May and on June 1. At that point, state biologists started to reconsider the forecast. And by June 5, they’d reopened the sport fisheries upstream on the Copper, and commercial fishermen were irritated they had missed out on what ended up being a pretty healthy king return.

By the end of the season, the  Copper looked to have produced closer to 49,000 fish than 29,000, and many people – most especially commercial fishermen in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova near the Copper’s mouth – were upset at Fish and Game for causing everyone a lot of angst.

On the Susitna, the stakes are lower than on the Copper, and higher. The Susitna’s commercial fishery is tiny and was always supposed to be phased out if kings ran short. Fewer than 40 people participated in the fishery last year. They caught about 2,000 fish, about 200 more than the small army of anglers invading the Deshka usually catches.

The state’s emergency order closes the commercial fishery, but that isn’t expected to cause much controversy. The sport fisheries are another matter. Mat-Su and Anchorage anglers are still steaming about summer 2017 interceptions of Inlet coho salmon.  They blame the Inlet’s commercial drift gillnet fleet and the Walker administration that has supported it for the lousy coho fishing.


From a political standpoint, the timing of Cotten’s statements on king-salmon closures and the appointment of a non-Anchorage resident to the Board couldn’t have been much worse, coming as they did just days after a Juneau District Court Judge tossed felony charges against Maw, saying Walker’s  Department of Law botched the indictment.

Maw – already found guilty by a Montana court of claiming to be a resident of that state and Alaska, a move that makes one a resident of neither – had been indicted in Alaska on multiple counts of over the years stealing $16,000 in Permanent Fund Dividends by illegally claiming to be a resident.

Maw has always had issues with where to call home. According to the records of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, he first declared himself an Alaska resident in 1990, seven years after buying a commercial drift gillnet permit for the Inlet. He changed his mind in 1993 and went back to being a non-resident. For that entire period, he was a full-time professor at Lethbridge College in Alberta who came north to fish in the summers.

Maw claimed permanent residence in the state in 1998, according to CFEC records. He told an Alaska Dispatch News reporter he finally quit teaching and moved to Alaska in 2001, although he continued to maintain a home in Dillon, Mont.

Maw graduated from high school in Butte, Mont.; and attended college in nearby Utah and Alberta before starting a career teaching environmental science in Lethbridge, a community about 75 miles north of the Canada-Montana border, according to Paul Vang of the Butte News.

A Walker appointment to the Fish Board, Maw at the time of a surprise resignation told Alaska Dispatch News reporter Pat Forgey that though he was an Alaskan his wife continued to live in Dillon for health reasons. 

At the time of that resignation, neither Maw nor the Walker administration would explain why the former executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) would withdraw from the Board after lobbying so hard to get on the board.

As it turned out, he was about to be charged in Montana with illegally claiming to be a resident of that state to obtain hunting tags. He was eventually convicted and fined $7,245 in Montana before being charged in Alaska with PFD theft and illegal swearing to obtain licenses.

Though Juneau Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez, the son of a one-time California commercial fisherman, tossed the PFD felony charges against Maw, he let stand misdemeanor charges that Maw lied about his residency to obtain state licenses.

Walker’s continued fraternization with Maw and UCIDA after Maw’s PFD indictments only served to increase the bad blood between the governor and non-commercial fishing interests in the state, and commercial fishermen probably didn’t do the Walker administration any favors with their very public support.

“The Walker administration has been fish friendly, commercial fish friendly, great on the Board of Fish, great on appointments, great on everything,” Robert Thorstenson Jr., a former president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, and a lobbyist for the Southeast Alaska Seiners Assocation and other commercial fishing groups, told the Juneau Empire.   “We love this administration. I love this administration. I think the governor is doing a tremendous job with his fisheries team.”

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the most active sportfishing group in the state at this time, was seething on Tuesday over Walkers’ effort to appoint Kodiak’s Duncan Fields to the Board and filed an emergency petition with the Board to consider a Susitna Valley king salmon management plan if the situation there was so dire state biologists believe all king fisheries need to be closed or drastically restricted.

Fields is highly respected by almost everyone in the fishing business for his knowledge and intellect, but KRSA said the governor is setting a bad precedent by leaving Anchorage unrepresented on the Board. More than 40 percent of the state’s population calls Anchorage home, and the interests of Anchorage fishermen often differ from those of commercial fishing interests which would control four of the seven seats on the Board with Fields’ appointment.

Fields must, however, be confirmed by the Legislature. More battles in the long-running Fish War are expected.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the fishing organization for which Robert Thorstenson Jr. lobbies.





34 replies »

  1. There’s a lot more to the story than they catch too many and we don’t get to catch enough. I don’t hear anyone talking about the lack of research and the cut in funds for the little research that is still being done. The 3 Stooges routine is getting old where we all slap each other around and try to poke each other in the eyes. Funding to try and figure out what is really going on should be at the forefront and keeping healthy salmonhabitat intact otherwise we are all fighting over crumbs.

  2. Sport and subsistence fishing should not be allowed in a destitute 3rd world country like Alaska. If you don’ton’t have the money to police fisheries, and Alaska certainly doesn’t, then people will grossly over-harvest the resource. Have not seen anyone checking fish and licenses at Deshka Landng since price of oil dropped. No oversight means people take way more than reported. State biologists and fish board members don’t get this.

  3. Bill: when you refer to Cotten’s op ed as possibly taking care of Delaney’s bitch, did you notice that Cotten blamed the overall lack of Chinook abundance on out going smolt mortality with unknown causes. IMO he is disingenuous and fails to
    accept any, not the slightest, responsibility for management decisions that may have been part of the problem. Out going smolt mortality! Please! Give me a break! Most fish resources that go away and not return are a result of over harvest. Why is so hard for the Dept to acknowledge that as a likely culprit?

    • Since I’ve not read Cotton’s piece I’m not sure what that outgoing smolt mortality means. Is he saying that outgoing smolts are in small numbers or is he saying that those outgoing smolts are being intercepted in the ocean before they can return. It appears that there are some numbers for outgoing smolts in those rivers. If those numbers are satisfactory and returns are not, then something is happening to them keeping them from returning. You say that’s an overharvest issue but who/what is doing the overharvesting? As far as I know nobody is seriously suggesting we have an open ocean fishery that it targeting king salmon (large ones, too).
      It’s ocean survivability that is the problem for most of our king salmon issues but the term out going smolt mortality is a new one for me. Maybe that’s the new term for ocean predation problems.
      Our problems have been in the ocean for long enough now that the returns are getting below escapement numbers. To some extent, that is becoming an overharvest issue but that is not the overriding problem.
      Until we can solve the ocean problem there will have to be more cutbacks in harvests to already very low numbers.

    • According to Matt Miller (adf&g SC coordinator) the high mortality rate is for the first year in salt-water. I have no idea how they know that, unless they’ve tagged some of these fish and know when they died.
      This is the first I’ve heard that our king salmon in general are dying in their first year in salt-water. Of course that statement is only for kings along Cook Inlet-could be different for other kings.

  4. Bill: your theory on C&R is interesting. Do you have any data to support your thoughts about mortality with C&R? What are your thoughts about the drop outs in the gill net fisheries. The fishers never provide reports on the numbers that drop. Sounds like a modified C&R concept with a nearly 100% mortality rate. How about the Kings that are not delivered and counted. And please don’t claim it never happens. Everyone knows it does. What you seem to want is a ban on inriver opportunities for Kings whole at the same time full opportunity for the commercial net fishers. Have I got that right? Where is the sharing of the burden of conservation Bill?

    • It’s only a theory of mine that is similar to the Orca theory (correlation that is not always causation). This information is on 4 ocean fish collected from SE troll fishery since 1982 (remember that large numbers of troll-caught kings are originated in lower 48 and Canada). 4 ocean fish have been declining in size the entire time since 82 and yet the 3 ocean fish only started declining in size about 20 years ago. For some reason those larger kings are being targeted IMO. Salmon don’t get to pass on their genes if they are kept from successfully spawning (unlike other trophy animals such as moose, etc). I know that C&R fisheries target those large kings if they can see them (some rivers this is more prevalent). I also believe that few of those fish successfully spawn after being caught and held up for those photos that we all get to see. Just my opinion AF.
      My own feelings are that there are few dropouts in Copper River king fishery (I fished both inside and outside beaches for kings consistently there). Offshore fishermen that occasionally get kings in their nets will lose fish because they aren’t expecting them but since they rarely get kings those numbers are small. I gaffed mine but most CR fishermen were being encouraged to use nets to minimize dropouts about ten years ago.
      Why would anyone keep a king salmon and not report it?? The fines would not be worth it IMO. We were also not supposed to keep ling cod that had died in the net but one fisherman caught with one paid a $1500 fine for it-hard to throw them back but that fine kept us honest.
      If my theory is right, about C&R fishing, then the only burden is someone’s loss of their fun, as described by many Native Alaskans as “playing with food.” I would outlaw it but I see F & Game still supports it.
      As I understand it the commercial setnetting is also being closed, even though it had been kept open in years past as the only way to get a handle on how many kings are there.

      • Bill, you may be correct about drop outs in the Copper fishery. But they happen with regularity in the east side set net fishery in the Kenai. And as for incentive to under report, consider that every Chinook
        caught and reported in that fishery is one that might have gone up river to spawn. And in a fishery that is of such low abundance it is like putting another nail in the set netters coffin. The less they catch the less blame they have for the problem.

      • I believe the king catch in east-side setnet fishery is being reduced some due to the shallower nets being used by many. I hope you aren’t suggesting that this reduction is due to fish being caught and not reported. If you are, I am not buying it.
        Get those leadlines off the bottom and you will catch fewer kings.

      • Bill,
        You keep saying theory, when in fact you loosely have a hypothesis at best.
        Without evidence of verification through repeated scientific testing (with set variables) you will never have a theory.
        It is just your B.S. opinion on diverting the blame from over harvesting by commercial nets, which many academic PHD’s (doing real science with data) feel is the real culprit for low Chinook returns up river throughout the state.

      • Well Steve, theory and hypothesis are synonyms and I’ve never said I had any proof. If it will help I will, in the future, say “unproven theory.”
        And, by the way, my “unproven theory” is only for Large (or trophy) king salmon and it has to do with their overall shrinking in size (which has been occurring since at least 1982). My thinking for king salmon in general becoming smaller is due to climate change.
        Nothing about my unproven theory (or hypothesis) has anything to do with smaller returns.

      • Well Bill,
        I would not think you believed in climate change…
        The bottom line is overharvesting.
        A problem identified over 100 years ago as the main threat to Pacific Salmon of which all species fall under.
        The feds also believe the hatchery “interference” and gene pool also contribute to smaller fish since they are raised in less space than if born naturally in the “wild”.
        Everything else is unproven for lack of data.

  5. Craig: I also want minimum escapement goals to be achieved. The problem is that the Dept continues to use a model that seems to lead to it reducing the number of spawners needed. This occurs frequently when the Dept cannot achieve their minimums. So instead of changing management strategy the Dept simply lowers the goals. They have been using the Ricker model for a long time and it has continually resulted in lower escapement goals . At the same time returns have steadily been declining. It may be time to start thinking out of the box and test watersheds to determine how much they can handle. The fish have not failed to return at least the number of spawners. It may be better to get a one to one yield on two million spawners than 1.5 to one yield on a million spawners. And on the Kenai it seems clear that the watershed can handle far more spawners. There is more to the fisheries than making sure a limited number of CFEC permit holders get the most economic benefit. A lot more

  6. You talk about support businesses whining about the financial hit with these closures. Correct me if I am wrong but didn’t the Feds come up with emergency funds a number of years ago for commercial fisheries when they were whining? It what it is but… What is good for one should be good for all. I just find a disconnect in your logic

      What disconnect do you speak of?? I do remember funds made available for price drops in pink salmon, especially after EXXON spill, but I don’t recall any whining about F&G needing new managers. The difference here is due to an emergency of sorts to this resource-big difference.
      I suspect that there could be funds available for other industries, too. Might be dependent on a governor declaring a disaster.

      • That was exactly what it was. A declared economic emergency and something like 24 mill was handed out. But who is talking about new managers? Kevin Delaney’s profession was a fish manager. He is just talking about decisions made by said managers and the commissioner.

  7. This is no way to run a sport fishery! If assessment of in-season data indicates that escapement objectives will not be attained then no one should argue against reducing fishing mortality to a biologically insignificant level or closing the fishery entirely but what we are basing our concern on in this case is a pre-season outlook, not really even a biologically reliable forecast when considering all of the rivers and streams of Northern Cook Inlet. In cases like this sport fishing seasons can begin with restrictive measures in place like bait and hook restrictions, size restrictions, strategic time and area closures and/or catch and release only. The ADFG spends hundreds of thousands of dollars running mark recapture studies and weirs on key streams in Northern Cook Inlet and by the end of the first week of June will have collected enough data to make an informed decision on which way to go with management based on in-season data. Next, the timing of these announcements is unacceptably late. We have been managing around a low abundance of king salmon for a number of years. In 2015 ADFG announced the king salmon strategy on February 19, In 2016 the announcement was made on February 18. Last year, 2017, the announcement was made on March 24 but that was because there was a meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries dealing with Cook Inlet. Many interested parties commented that an announcement that late in March created difficulty in planning. This year there was no excuse not to release an announcement of a very limited fishery (which after all this time they did) easily a month ago. I say again, this is no way to run a sport fishery!

  8. Will the Anchorage Area inriver anglers unit next fall and elect representatives that support conservation of all salmon in a mixed stock fishery in Cook Inlet?
    Will inriver anglers get a voice during Board of Fisheries confirmations in Juneau?
    If they did it would be a first.

    • Rod: the in river sector has been pretty effective during confirmation in the past. Remember Vince Webster and Robert Ruffner’s failed confirmation. The solution starts with electing a Governor that will
      follow Alaska’s constitution and appoint a Commissioner that will
      also follow it. The Dept has huge discretionary authority through emergency order management. And in most cases that authority has been exercised at the expense of in river users. You and your organization might want to consider working to get new leadership which will
      listen and act on your concerns. And appoint BOF members who will recognize the rights and needs of the many and not just one user group.

  9. Walker knows his time at the helm is coming to an end, so the “banksters united” clan that got him elected want him to do as much damage as possible before he is tossed out of office.
    Walker will go down as one of the worst leaders in Alaska’s history.
    As the PWS hatcheries pump out millions of sockeye and pink salmon, our natural Chinook runs are “Endangered” as a species and should get some federal protection.
    Alaskans should file paperwork with the feds announcing that King Salmon are threaten as an endangered species and should be treated appropriately.
    Commercial fishing for kings in the Cook Inlet should be halted until natural in river spawning numbers improve and residents can harvest fish up river.
    Vote for anyone but Walker in November!

  10. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the best way to rebuild a failed salmon run is to hold off all fishing until you get 100% escapement then let everyone catch fish, and if that doesn’t work out then no one gets to fish until the fish runs grow back or we need to build hatcheries for every river?
    Stop playing corrupt games with the future of Alaskan salmon rivers!

      • It’s a bit more complex than defining “failed,” Craig and the B of Fish has granted the Dept. of Fish and Game some leeway in their emergency orders. It’s all the whining that makes it seem to be some sort of “corrupt game” IMO.
        Can’t really blame those businesses that depend on this natural resource for their survival but such is life and my feelings are that the economics of sport fishing lodges shouldn’t hold much say over the health of the resource. Just my opinion.

      • huh. that’s a far different attitude that we saw applied on Copper River flats last year, Bill. it was clear there before the season started that the commercial fishery was almost certain to take more than 4,000 Chinook no matter how ADF&G managed it, and the state charged ahead anyway. luckily, everyone got lucky.
        but just because you get lucky and something works doesn’t mean you made a good decision. i have some dead friends who proceeded on the assumption that lucky meant they were wise until it killed them.
        but that said, this issue is largely about “failed.” the runs in the Susitna haven’t “failed.” they are low. they may be moving toward a new, lower equilibrium as ecologists now say. we managed a lot of Alaska fisheries at lower equilibriums for years.
        coming off the Alaska salmon crash of the 1970s, ADF&G managed Kenai sockeye for years to hit an escapement of 300,000 to 570,000. they finally figured out they were at that time operating the system at low equilibrium. the goal is now more than twice that old range.
        i’m not arguing for missing minimum escapement goals. the prime objective should be in always trying to meet them. but it would seem a flexible fisheries management approach consistent across all fisheries is wise instead of blanket closures of some fisheries – and not others – based on what we know to be unreliable data.
        i can’t argue with what the Department did on the Copper River last year. it was logical even if there was a legitimate risk they’d over-harvest Chinook. if things had turned out differently and the run had been as weak as expected, and they’d ended up putting only 20,000 or so upriver in order to get a significant Cordova sockeye harvest, i wouldn’t have been happy. but i could have lived with that.
        there are commercial fishermen with families in Cordova. they need to be able to support themselves.
        i would have been happier with Copper River flats fishermen if they’d cooperated a little more with the plan instead of trying to target kings despite the state’s area restrictions, but people have boat payments to make and some just enjoy the thrill of making money.
        human nature exists. so do economic realities.
        the latter needs to be as much a part of the discussion in sport fisheries as in commercial fisheries. the economic reality at the Copper last year was that it made no sense to shut the commercial fishery and deny fishermen a chance at sizable allowable harvest of sockeye to protect a few thousand extra kings. the economic reality in the Susitna/Yentna/Talkeetna drainage at the moment is that there no reason not to allow some fishing opportunity in-season while an attempt is made to assess whether that anticipated weak return is real or not.
        a C&R release fishery on the Yentna isn’t going to kill many Chinook. hell, you could probably allow a limit of a king per day with a season limit of one there and have a May season, at least, with very few dead fish, and from it get some idea of what is coming back.
        and there’s no argument for closing Little Willow Creek, which met it’s escapement goal last year. there’s no real reason to believe the return there this year will be any less than last year. there’s really no good reason to not allow a C&R fishery there or, again, a May fishery with a one-fish limit and a seasonable limit of one just to see what’s what. there aren’t that many fish hitting the Little Willow in May, but there might be enough to indicate whether the run is stronger than expected.

      • Just your opinion about “it was clear there before the season started that the commercial fishery was almost certain to take more than 4,000 Chinook no matter how ADF&G managed it,” and also about being “lucky.”
        As an aside, had there really been anything close to that Copper River forecast there would have not been anything like the take on those outside beaches and nobody would have been fishing there with no results for their effort. The fleet knew that the king escapement was already inside barrier islands and there was no risk to the resource IMO. Further, as far as I know there has never been an area-wide closure inside waters on the Copper-that was a huge push to make sure that resource would survive in case the forecast was correct.
        Luck had nothing to do with it!

      • bill: you underestimate fishermen. they’re very good at what they do. extremely good. a testament to the virtues of independent capitalists.

      • By the way Craig, my own theory of what is the targeting of large king salmon (not kings in general), along with the Orca theory, is the C&R fisheries.
        Nobody should be targeting king salmon on their nests IMO. These C&R fishermen are not interested in keeping these fish (if they are allowed) and are only wanting to hold up that trophy king for pictures and then thinking that salmon is going to go ahead and successfully spawn.
        Just my opinion that these fishermen should be stopped completely.

      • Craig, I competed with over 500 other gillnetters in PWS for over 25 years-I don’t underestimate them. They are not going to fish where there are no fish-which is what would have been the case, on those outside beaches, had that forecast been correct. Especially when there were plenty of reds to be caught offshore.

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