With the commercial catch of sockeye in Upper Cook Inlet almost double the number of sockeye in the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has downgraded the size of the Kenai sockeye returnin a move that might allow for more commercial fishing.
Some in-river fishermen are madder than hell about the late Tuesday decision, but biologists for the state agency are simply and dutifully following a management plan laid out by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in early 2017.
Led by Board members Robert Ruffner from Kenai and Board Chairman John Jensen from Petersburg, the Board that year made clear its opinion that Cook Inlet sockeye, most of which come from the Kenai River, are to be managed to benefit the commercial fishing industry.
Jensen outlined the marching orders for state managers as the meeting was drawing to a close. An earlier Board, he explained, decided to alter regulations to put more salmon in the Kenai and in streams in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and that cost commercial fishermen.
The Board under his leadership, he added, was making changes that “will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
How much more fishing time commercial fishermen might get out of Fish and Game’s late Tuesday decision to downgrade the run and reduce the goal for sockeye in-river to a minimum of 900,000 – down from 1 million – is unclear.
Everything depends on how many sockeye are still in the Inlet or on their way back. There didn’t appear to much of anything entering the river Wednesday. A pair of Anchorage dipnetters fishing the north bank at the mouth reported that not only did they not catch a fish all day, they didn’t even feel the “bump” of a salmon running into their nets.
Cook Inlet commercial fishery biologist Pat Shields emailed that agency modeling now puts the total return to the Kenai at less than 2 million – well below the forecast of 2.5 million – but he didn’t want to say exactly how much below.
There remains some hope some of the fish might simply be late as they were last year.
It is worth noting, however, that Fish and Game late Wednesday afternoon canceled the regular Thursday opening of the commercial drift gillnet fishery in the central district of the Inlet and closed set gillnetting in the east foreland section. The only commercial fishermen allowed to fish were setnetters “within 600 feet of the mean high tide mark on the Kenai Peninsula shoreline in the Kasilof section of the Inlet.”
Almost all the fish caught there are bound for the Kasilof River, one of the few streams in the Southcentral region of the state that is getting a normal return of sockeye. It has already topped the minimum goal of 160,000 fish in-river and is moving toward the upper goal of 390,000.
Elsewhere – with the exception of the Main Bay hatchery in Prince William Sound – sockeye returns look grim. The return to the Copper River near the Canadian border in Eastern Alaska peaked on July 16 and has been in free fall ever since.
The early closure of the commercial fishery off the mouth of the Copper after a catch of only 38,000 fish in May ensured the in-river goal of a minimum of 360,000 sockeye will be met, but the river now looks likely to fall short of the upper goal of 750,000.
A return of 1.9 million sockeye had been forecast, leaving the fishery now more than 1 million sockeye short and the commercial fishery devastated. A harvest of 1.2 million sockeye had been anticipated.
And the early, first-of-season Copper sockeye and kings – only 7,000 of which were caught – are coveted by restaurants across the country. The demand this year was such the season started with fishermen being offered an unheard of $9.50 per pound for sockeye and well more than twice that for kings, an incidental catch in the sockeye fishery.
The financial loss due to what amounted to a near, full-season closure of the fishery could run somewhere near $50 million, although the Cordova-based gillnet fleet did get some help from a bigger than expected return of sockeye to the Main Bay hatchery.
The catch there is nearing 1 million, which is above the upper range of the projected return of a maximum of 839,000. But the Main Bay fish aren’t worth nearly as much as the Copper River fish.
How bad the commercial sockeye fishery in Cook Inlet will turn out to be at this point remains unclear. Following the wishes of the Board, managers allowed some extra commercial fishing in the Inlet early in the season and that helped push the sockeye catch to 664,000 to date.
That’s about 35 percent of the forecast harvest of 1.9 million.
The intent of fishing as hard as possible early was to try to catch a lot of sockeye with the driftnet fleet in the deepwater of the Inlet to protect an expected low return of king salmon to the Kenai. The drift fleet can catch a lot of sockeye with a minimal catch of kings.
Once the sockeye move inshore, however, the king catch starts to climb, and if a lot of sockeye move inshore, leading to a need to fish heavily with setnets to slow the entry of sockeye into the Kenai, a lot of kings get caught.
The mixed-stock nature of the fishery coupled to less-than-selective gillnets – “dirty fishing gear” as fishery experts describe it – makes for a difficult balancing act for managers.
They’ve been struggling to get an adequate king return past the nets into the Kenai this year.
So few kings made it into river in the two weeks after the July 1 opening of the sport fishery that angling has been limited to catch and release fishing since July 16. The Kenai once supported a lucrative, guided sport fishery for kings, but it faded years ago as the big fish disappeared.
Prior to the catch-and-release order this year, the sport fishery had harvested but 101 “big kings,” the fish greater than 34 inches that attract trophy anglers, according to Fish and Game.
In the Monday opening of the commercial set net fishery, Shields reported a catch of 240 Chinook, about half of which were those “big kings.” In other words, the one opening of the setnet fishery resulted in the death of more kings than the entire first half of the season for the in-river sport fishery.
What the final tally will be is unknown. The sport fishery for kings closes on July 31, but the commercial season runs into August if there are sockeye or pinks to be caught. And as long as the nets fish, they catch some kings. And the later into the season the fishery continues, the higher the percentage of big kings caught tends climb, according to state data.
Still, the king run appears on track to meet the minimum goal for big spawners in river. That is good news, but anglers were far from happy given other changes that came with the sockeye salmon downgrade.
Those had the Kenai River Sportfishing Association fuming on Wednesday.
“With the new (lower) escapement goal range, commercial set netters will be able to fish regular 12-hour periods in August on Mondays and Thursdays, plus an additional 24 hours per week,” KSRA noted on its Facebook page. “Drifters will have no restrictions and can fish Inlet-wide on regular periods (Mondays and Thursdays), plus unrestricted time through emergency openers in the corridor area off of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.”
Those periods are not, however, guaranteed. They could be closed if the sockeye run continues to falter. Only 354,000 sockeye have so far entered the Kenai at a time when the run is historically half over.
Reached by telephone late Wednesday, a frustrated KRSA executive director Ricky Gease said he didn’t want to talk. It would be better, he said, to quote the group’s measured response on Facebook.
Without mentioning Ruffner or Jensen, the post noted the Ruffner-Jensen led Board killed old restrictions on the net fisheries designed to protect coho (silver) salmon in August.
It is because of the increasing return of coho that the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river – the fishery that feeds tens of thousands of Alaskans – ends on July 31.
The commercial fishery, however, continues until August 15. The old management plan called for a closure of the fishery if coho catches started to swell as they sometimes do and could this year with the mix of fish offshore in the Inlet at the moment appearing heavily weighted with silvers.
The drift fleet on Monday caught almost as many silvers as it did sockeye. Normally, the catch this time of year would be largely the latter. The old regulations were designed specifically to protect silvers in a year like this, but the Board did away with that protection.
“Despite acknowledging the potential of large commercial harvests of silver salmon, the BOF waved off any negative impacts on sport fisheries,” the KRSA post said, “when silver salmon are supposedly a priority fishery in both the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai River (sport fisheries).”
Were the issues involving silvers, sockeyes and kings not enough, there were also questions being raised as to how many of the sockeye the state sonar counts in the Kenai are actually sockeye in a year when pink salmon, many of similar size, are returning, plus what might be caught if the state decides to give setnetters more fishing time to harvest what is expected to be a large return of pinks.
That isn’t going to happen, however, unless enough sockeyes show to indicate the in-river sockeye goal is going to be met, and that isn’t looking good.
Gillnets are somewhat selective in the size of the fish they catch. Depending on the size of their gill-snagging mesh, they can catch fish of various sizes. But they can’t begin to distinguish between a 5-pound humpy, a 4-pound sockeye and a 6-pound silver, or a 4-pound humpy, a 6-pound sockeye and a 5-pound silver, or any similar mix.
The KRSA is concerned a fishery supposedly targeted on humpies (pinks) could further boost the silver harvest, but the group’s comments were restrained compared to those of Gary Barnes who runs the Alaska Outdoor Journal, a Facebook page followed by more than 17,000 Alaska dipnetters and anglers.
“Let me say I’m so upset with our Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plans that I am barely containing myself here,” he wrote. “(But) I intend to expose every single facet of every management plan that is designed to benefit one single-user group at the complete expense of the other two in-river user groups. There is no science or biology in any of these plans, only greed!”
There really isn’t much to expose, however. Everything has largely happened in plain sight. Gov. Bill Walker is strongly backed by commercial fishing interests; he appointed a Board intended to put commercial interests first; and commercial fishermen are getting what they wanted.
The fallout is not a secret. It was predictable if sockeye returns faltered. And they did.
UPDATE – This story was updated on July 29 to reflect that more fishing time in the Inlet for commercial fisheries is looking unlikely to do the extremely weak nature of the sockeye return.