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.
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.
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.