Battleground UCI

alaska fish wars

The fishing gets so crazy in Cook Inlet in the summer that National Geographic made it into a reality TV show, and that didn’t even begin to get into the vicious politics.

Fish wars are brewing again in Upper Cook Inlet with Alaska Gov. Bill Walker headed to Kenai on Friday to meet with commercial fishermen angry about fishing closures and the efforts of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) to protect king salmon.

A KRSA letter to the governor asking him to shutdown setnet fisheries to prevent king bycatch riled commercial set netters, and the indignation spread to drift netters when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game downsized the expected return of sockeye salmon to the Inlet and ordered a Thursday closure of most commercial fisheries.

The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents setnetters, is mad at (KRSA) for overstating the size of the commerical king catch, reports Kenai’s KSRM radio, even though the sportfishing group’s letter proved meaningless.

The governor never even responded to it, KSRA executive director Ricky Gease said today, and there have been no regulatory changes in the fishery except for the closure tied to a weak return of sockeye that has left the Kenai lagging behind the in-river goal for spawning fish.

The commercial closure, however, has enraged some supporters of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful fishing lobby.

The meeting with the governor, the two organizations said in a joint post on Facebook, “is not a campaign meeting; it’s a chance to talk to the governor during the season while issues related to our livelihoods are top of mind.”


Some are beside themselves that personal-use dipnetters continue to be allowed to fish with the commercial nets ordered out of the water.

“There are THOUSANDS of dip netters destroying the Kenai River,” Lucas Bourne of Homer posted on the UCIDA Facebook page Wednesday. “Hundreds, even thousands, of those dippers report inaccurate information and lie on their report card.

“Hundreds of them actually catch couple hundred fish each (illegally), take the fish home and sell for profit (illegally).

“Very, very few, extremely few people will actually eat every single fish they take. Most will sell it, trade it, or dispose of it next year, freezer burnt, with zero regard to the intention of this program, which was designed to FEED Alaskans (but sadly turned into a river robbing “sellfish”(sic) frenzy).”

The claims are ones often echoed by UCIDA.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 22,316 people fished for salmon with dipnets in the Kenai and nearby Kasilof River or in Fish Creek in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley last year.

They caught 380,203 sockeye salmon, according to the state, or an average of 17 per permit in a fishery with a limit of 25 salmon per permit holder plus 10 more for each additional family member.

There are no catch limits in the commercial fishery where about 1,000 of 1,300 permit holders (735 set net/569 drift net) fished last year, according to data from Fish and Game and Alaska’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, which issues the limited commercial fishing permits.

Due to a weak run of sockeye, the commercial catch was the lowest in 10 years at about 1.8 million upper Inlet sockeye, an average of 1,800 per permit. The fish were worth about $20 million when sold at the dock, plus several million dollars more made on the sale of Chinook (king), chum and silver salmon netted incidental to the sockeye fishery.

The commercial fishery has caught 664,000 sockeye to date this year, according to Fish and Game. There is no estimate on the dipnet catch, but it is believed to be a tiny fraction of the commercial harvest. Dipnetters have spent most of the season complaining about how bad the fishing, and the Kenai webcams that provide constant surveillance of the beach have generally backed those reports.

No fish

The fishing has been so slow that there are often less than 50 people trying their luck on a north Kenai beach that will attract hundreds when the fish are in. Dipnetters generally rush to the river expecting the fishing to get good on days when 40,000, 50,000 or more sockeye swarm upstream.

There has been only one day this year when the fish-counting sonar in the river showed a return of more than 40,000. And on Wednesday, only 14,000 fish entered the river.

Late July escapements have been lower on that date in the past, but only when the commercial fishery was open and gillnets were busy snagging sockeye on the approaches to the Kenai.

A similar number of fish entered the river on July 25, 2013, but Fish and Game that year had the commercial fleet busy trying to cork off the Kenai return given a flood of 868,000 sockeye into the Kenai between July 15 and 20. There were that year more than 1.1 million fish already in the river by this date, and upstream from the mouth, anglers were having a field day.

This year, there are 368,000 fish in the river, less than half of the revised and downgraded in-river goal of 900,000 minimum. Anglers patrolling the river by boat report being able to find schools of fish that make the fishing OK, but dipnetters at the mouth report catching little.

That is sure to cut down on the waste that everyone concedes exists. There is no doubt Bourne is right when he complains of waste. There is waste everywhere. Oceana, an environmental group, in 2014 estimated the waste in U.S. commercial fisheries at 2 billion pounds per year.

Waste in commercial fisheries in the Inlet has never been studied, but commercial fishermen concede Inlet gillnets nets catch unreported numbers of starry flounder and spiny dogfish which are discarded because no markets exist for those fish.

Everywhere waste

And none of this even begins to take into consideration the average food waste in homes of lower 48 residents who buy Alaska fish. The United States Department of Agriculture has pegged the waste there at a pound per day. 

“This means that roughly 20 percent of all food put on the plates of Americans is trashed every year, or enough to feed 2 billion extra people annually,” Forbes reported.

How much of the waste is seafood is unknown, but seafood has a notoriously short shelf life. It’s good for only a day or two in the refrigerator, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Steaks, chops and roasts, FDA says, can be stored in the fridge for more than twice as long – three to five days.

And then there is restaurant and retail food waste.

When they’re rolled into the calculation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates “31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.”

So, on average, there is a better than three in 10 chance a salmon killed in a commercial fishery in Alaska will be shipped to the U.S and wasted. Whether Alaska dipnetters waste more fish or less on average has never been studied.

Valid complaint

As for the big complaint of set netters that their harvests of “big kings” have been over-reported, they are right. Fish and Game estimates the set net catch of kings of 34-inches or greater length at only about 400, give or take 30.

That’s about four times the number of big kings harvested by the in-river sport fishery before the fishery went catch-and-release only at mid-month.

And about 240 of the big kings – more than twice the catch in the in-river fishery – were caught in the last opening of the setnet fishery on Monday, according to Fish and Game.

Dipnetters are not allowed to harvest any kings big or little; they are required to roll them back into the river alive.

All of the 34-inch and bigger fish caught in commercial nets or by anglers are spawners. How many of the less-than-34-inch fish are spawners is not known. The 34-inch limit is arbitrary.

It represents “the smallest king salmon that the (in-river) imaging sonar can reliably distinguish from all sizes of sockeye salmon,” Fish and Game says. The agency believes 90 percent of female kings are 34 inches or bigger.

Spawner size for kings in Southeast Alaska, however, is set at 26 inches. How many dead Kenai king slot in at between 26 and 34 inches is not known. Setnetters claim they catch mostly tiny “jacks” kings that spend only a winter at sea, but the state defines jacks as 20 inches or smaller.

A 20-inch king weighs only a few pounds and is likely to slip through the 6-inch mesh of a setnet.













18 replies »

  1. I have participated in the Kenai PU dip net fishery every year for at least 3-5 separate days for the last decade. I use my boat and put in up river at the Pillars and run down to bridge. I have never not at least talked to enforcement from one agency every year in the time I have participated.

    Conversely I commercial fished for nine years in many different fisheries, both state and federally managed, and was actively engaged by enforcement on the grounds far less than that, only a handful of times.

    This fishery is actively patrolled and I personally hope that they do more of it because I still see two stroke motors, tails not clipped, catches not recorded before leaving the grounds, 50HP+ motors above the marker, etc. Also there is up to a $200 fine for not reporting your catch this year, I believe this is also a good thing. I don’t see over fishing but I am sure people do it, just as I am 100% certain that there are commercial fisherman breaking the rules in every fleet (including UCI drift & set net).

    Regarding costs, I track my expenses and in the end I spend less than $3/lb for the sockeye fillets I put up. My family eats them all, every year. When the commercial fleet/processors will match that price I will gladly hang my dip net up. Note this is dollar per pound of fillets, not dollar per pound of whole fish.

    My perception this year & last is that the Board of Fish is making commercial fisheries a higher priority than in river escapement and personal use fisheries. This year & last are the first times I have not been able to catch my permitted amount within the 3-5 days I set aside in July to achieve this goal.

    This management approach should be corrected and in my opinion simply does not follow our our state constitution – particularly Article 8.2 General Authority, 8.3 Common Use, and 8.4 Sustained Yield.

  2. Craig, where did you get your 6 inch mesh for setnets?? I know Kenai reds run larger than most but 6 inch mesh is IMO too large even for those reds. That would be for cohos unless they were running large.
    If those setnetters are using 6 inch mesh early in the season, then they are keying on small kings and that doesn’t make any sense, to me.

    • regulatory limit, Bill. but i’ve caught plenty of Kenai sockeye that would hang in 6-inch mess. the big Kenai fish are whales. in the bad old days of the Kenai dipnet fishery, i can remember when we rolled anything less than 6- or 7-pounds out of the net.

      or maybe even bigger.

      i’m lazy. i admit it. when you bring home 25 or 30 fish to process, it’s a lot easier to steak the front half and only filet the rear half. i remember regularly thinking, “damn, why are Copper River fish so small?”

      sadly, sockeye have generally been shrinking in size over the years. thankfully the dipnet that i pulled out of the Copper River in the 1980s and used for years broke a couple years ago.

      it was starting to get to the point too many fish went right through the mesh.

      • I’ll venture here that nobody is using 6 inch mesh anymore in that fishery, since keying on kings would just piss off too many folks. Their money fish is reds and 6 inch mesh is outside the ideal size except in an exceptional year of large sockeyes. And even in such a year, if the drift fleet is taking larger fish the setnetters would key on whatever was left over (smaller fish).

    • 6″ mesh is the regulatory limit, instituted in UCI sometime around the late 60’s-early70’s for the purpose of King conservation. Turns out this is not the first bout of low abundance or poor ocean conditions for these fish. Bill is right – I don’t know anybody actually using 6″ mesh. Most ESSN mesh is between 4-1/2″-5-1/2″, depending on time of year and specific stock targeted (sites closer to Kenai typically user larger mesh, sites closer to Kasilof typically use smaller mesh). 6″ is pretty big and the loss of smaller fish would be substantial. If you really want to target large Kings, 7-8″ mesh is the ticket. Studies have proved that <6" mesh is way better at targeting smaller fish and catches less large Kings. The <6" mesh requirements passed in the AYK several years ago were considered a major King salmon conservation measure. Many people in UCI don't realize that step was taken here many years ago.

      • Todd: i agree. i used 6-inch because people could use it. and sad to say from what i’ve seen this year, there are a significant number of sockeyes that could go through 4 1/2″.

        i was down on the North Kenai beach this morning looking around and, in fact, dipnetters appeared to be catching a lot of sockeye that went through the mesh, as well as a shocking number of sockeye-size humpies.

        i feel sorry about your season. i think we can all share the hope that we aren’t seeing the start of a downward cycle here, but the regional spread of bad, in some cases disastrous, sockeye returns is troubling.

      • Craig, a sockeye that would get through a 4 1/2 inch mesh would be smaller than 2 lbs. That’s pretty small, even for a jack.

      • i’d say they were closer to three pounds, but long and skinny. still, they could have been less; i didn’t have a scale so i couldn’t weigh any.

        but i know gillnet marked fish when i see them, and there were lots that had been held for a time near the dorsal fin only to push through and break out with gillnet damage clearly obvious just forward or aft of the pectoral fins.

        now, i suppose the could have been discards by commercial fishermen who pulled them through the net and just tossed them because it was the quickest way to deal with low value fish, but i’d prefer to believe they were dropouts that went through the mesh.

        i saw fish hung up halfway through 3 1/2 mesh. they were small.

      • Overall Sockeye abundance is somewhat confusing. It looks like the Copper will
        meet its escapement goal but at the expense of harvest opportunities my most users. The Kasilof will also meet escapement goals and the set net users have been given
        opportunity in that section. The Kenai is looking poor for everyone, but perhaps there will be more coming. I still wonder how the dept accurately distinguishes between sockeye, pinks, and silvers. Net apportionment, I suppose. Apportionment timing is important. I do not have confidence in the Dept’s counts. Especially when escapements are low in even years.
        The real confusion comes when looking st Bristol Bay. The Nushagak has a run of over 33 Million sockeye with nearly 10 Million escapement. How did that happen? It truly is historic and with little to explain it. The other districts are doing just so so but will easily achieve escapement goals. It will be interesting to see what the Dept concludes about the Susitna sockeye numbers. My guess is they will not look good. Are we becoming used to low numbers to the point of resigning ourselves to them?

      • Sockeyes are paid for by the pound and I find it hard to believe any commercial fisherman is going to toss overboard a small red that he’s already picked from his net. You must think they are extremely low-watt bulbs.
        It’s common to see net-marked fish from at-sea commercial fisheries as those fish lose their protective slime and they tend to get a skin disease that shows up especially in fresh water.
        Maybe those fish hanging from 3 1/2 inch mesh were “eulachon.” Heheh!

  3. What about the 1/3 of our seafood that gets shipped to China?
    Are we certain that the communist government is not wasting our fish?
    They may be purchasing it to just destroy moral in one of the last Democracy’s on earth.
    I am sure if my grandfathers were alive they would have something to say on the subject of U.S. seafood going to China (in the face of growing poverty in America).
    By the way….How much seafood goes to Japan…England…America???
    I heard it may be as low as 20 percent of the overall catch that winds up on U.S. tables to eat.
    Seems “de-moralizing” to a citizen like me.
    Ask Dan Sullivan how he feels about the current allocation…I believe his brother has a fish distribution center in OHIO….how much goes there?

    • Growing “poverty” in America is “growing” because our Federal Government imports millions of 3rd World, uneducated illegals here for votes. It is normal for them and considered “poverty” to us.

  4. So far this July in Upper Cook Inlet no fishing group is having a good season. It is unfortunate that on a year when the money fish (sockeye) for the commercial fishery is coming in so short of forecast that the ADFG has downgraded the run into the lowest abundance tier and put the commercial fishery on the beach, closed the dip net fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River early and reduced the bag and possession limit for sport fishermen in the Kenai to one fish, that KPFA, in its news release, seems focused on claims that the commercial set net fishery is being unfairly accused of killing far more large Kenai kings than the sport fishery. I’m sure there are some who really care if the ratio of large Kenai king salmon in the harvest is 3:1, 4:1 or the erroneously claimed 10:1 that has sense been corrected with the help of the ADFG. No matter how you cut it the ratio is significantly in favor of the commercial fishery. And, why is it not appropriate for sport fishermen to include the drift fishery harvest of kings in a catch ratio assessment. Are not most of those fish bound for the Kenai as well. Drift has reported a harvest of about 485 total so far so that must mean about another 100 big Kenai kings. But right now, let’s put first things first and make the escapement goals for both kings and sockeye in the Kenai and hope for a good run of coho to the Inlet.

    • Kevin: I believe many of the commercial restrictions are no longer in effect starting Aug 1. Even though the Dept all of a sudden downgraded the forecast run to 2.3 million or less the Drift fleet will be allowed to fish district wide after the 1st. Five days from now!! And the set netters will be back in the water as well. That should be of concern to people in the Valley and Anchorage. Many of the salmon harvested by the drift fleet will be Silvers. So much for a Silvers in any numbers getting to the Northern District. And given that the first week in August no longer has the percent rule for Sockeye you can bet that the Dept will not restrict it and may even EO more time. All while the in river fishers are almost completely restricted. Add to this equation that the Governor is meeting with the commercial
      Fleet and not the in river fishers and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Commissioner will relax the Comm net fisher restrictions and maybe just shut down the in river fisheries totally.

    • We’re having a terrible year in the Juneau area so far. The hatchery run kings finally came in at a number that the “snagging” area was opened. The hatchery chums are here, not sure about numbers, but the seine fleet has been busy. Silvers are supposed to show but so far nothing. It’s nearly the end of July we usually see silvers arriving mid-July with the peak around the end to first week of August. Who knows what this year is going to end up like.

  5. Same old unsubstantiated claims by the net fishers that dip netters break the law and then waste fish. Leave it to the Comm Fishers and they would ban the dip net fishery. Won’t ever happen however. The dip net fishery benefits well over 100 thousand Alaskans directly by putting fish in their freezers and on their table.
    Wonder if Roland Maw will accompany the Governor on this “non campaign “ meeting.

  6. Craig, up until two years ago the dept of public safety had issued zero tickets for selling PU caught fish. I haven’t checked in 2017 or 2018. The number of tickets for too many fish was less than 10 and most of those were for one or two fish over. Some of the overage is confiscated. Recall, PU fish from the Copper are required to have a tail lobe removed (cut off) to designate them as PU until “prepared for human consumption”. Commercial fishermen have always accused non-commercial fishermen of catching more than permitted. However, the number of violations for some 30 years does not even suggest that to be the case. PU fishermen are always under the watchful eye(s) of the enforcement division. I haven’t fished the Kenai except for sport fishing but in the Copper PU fishery a chat with an enforcement officer is routine. No one, not even you, should take accusations like those made by the commercial web pages without some verification. A call to the troopers is all you need. They computerize types of infractions. Ask about selling PU caught fish. You’ll be as surprised as I was.

    Sent from my iPad


    • Mike: i don’t disagree with you on AWT numbers, but the numbers are sort of meaningless because they just lead to the rant of “not enough enforcement.”

      and there is just enough truth to that accusation to make it believable to many, which probably makes it more believable than if it were truly as bad as the people making the claim contend.

      i think the numbers pretty well speak for themselves. i think most PU fishermen, like most commercial fishermen, play by the rules. the catch average is way below what limits would allow.

      given outlaw harvest – even in the worst of scenarios – are invariably a small percentage of legal harvests, the numbers here would make a reasonable man conclude there’s no real problem.

      hell, they might make a reasonable man conclude it’s really not worth the state spending much on enforcement given that one outlaw drifter could trump a dozen or two dozen or more outlaw dipnetters.

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