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.
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.
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.
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.
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.