KENAI – As sockeye salmon trickled into the 49th state’s most fought-over river on Friday, video showed Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten meeting with angry commercial fishermen to try to appease them as to the reasons behind a fishing closure in Cook Inlet.
The only thing obvious from the meeting was that commercial fishermen harbor many misconceptions about Inlet fisheries. (See the five biggest myths below.)
When Cotten explained that the decision to close was “not a political decision. That’s a conservation decision,” he was shouted down by the fisherman who’d earlier asked about the politics behind the closure.
“Answer that question!” the man demanded to the cheers of the crowd packing the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association headquarters.
The answer was simple really. With so few sockeye entering the Kenai and offshore-test-fishery (OTF) numbers low, fishery managers had no choice but to shackle efficient, fish-killing operations until there was some sign of more sockeye in the Inlet.
In-river, the Friday sonar count of 16,043 sonar was the lowest in a decade for the July 27 date. And the total in-river count of 399,253 was the second lowest for sonar counts of fish that stretch back to 1979.
The only year lower was ’79 when sonar counting began and the estimate of fish escaping into the river was still being fine tuned. The sonar that year counted 388,215 sockeye by July 27 on the way to totaling a disastrous return of 412,719.
Scientists have concluded that at least 700,000 spawners are needed to adequately seed the river and the optimum level is above that. Even with closure of the Kenai sport fishery – which takes place upstream from the sonar – ’79 fell about 300,000 short of spawning needs.
The next lowest cumulative count for July 27 came in 1984 when only 443,900 sockeye – approximately 11 percent more than this year – made it in-river by Sept.27. That season again ended up being another biological disaster with a total, end-of-season return of only 481,470.
As commercial fishermen pointed out to Cotten and the governor, there have been years when the Kenai sockeye return skewed late and spawning goals were met despite weak early returns. Such was the case in 1991 and again in 1998, but even in the worst of those years – 1991 – the number of fish in-river by July 27 was 33 percent bigger than this year.
The summer of 2018 is looking like a disaster, but there is one bright light. The best OTF number of the season in the Inlet came on Friday, offering some hope that more sockeye are still on their way toward the river, which could use days of big returns – 50,000 fish or more – to put a dent in the sockeye deficit at this point.
None of which is likely to calm commercial fishermen agitated by a bummer year and wrapped up in their own mythology of what is wrong. Here are their five biggest myths:
#1 – Science is the solution
“Scientific management” will solve the Inlet’s problems, commercial fishermen believe. It can’t, and it won’t.
The fishery is already managed with pretty good science, and better science won’t help much because the big issues in the Inlet don’t involve biology. They involve sociology and economics and there are no scientific formulas for resolving socio-economic issues.
Things might be different if the Inlet fishery existed solely to benefit the commercial fishing industry, but it doesn’t. The fishery is also called upon to provide fish for individual Alaskans (the “food security” in subsistence and personal-use fisheries) and fuel tourism, a key component in the Alaska economy of the 21st Century and one of the few components with real, short-term growth possibilities.
The commercial fishery is already overgrown. There are more commercial fishermen at work than the resource can support. The 451 drift gillnet permit holders who fished last year grossed an average of $15,711, according to the Alaska Commercial Fishery Entry Commission. Only 59 fishermen made the high-liner group averaging $56,378 for the season, and the averages for 2017 were better than for the two previous years.
The story was worse for setnetters who averaged $9,162 in 2017 and $7,257 in 2016, according to CFEC numbers. Aside from 80 true professionals who average more than $57,000, most of the setnetters, like most of the drifters, have been forced by economic evolution into the role of hobbyists who demand fish that would otherwise help boost the more valuable tourism industry.
Commercial fishermen can, however, be thankful that scientific management carried them this far. The average commercial sockeye harvest in the Inlet from 1960 to 1975 was but 980,000 sockeye per year. From 1969 through 1975, it actually dropped to an annual average of 685,000, just above the 671,000 catch to date for this year.
The 20-year average for the ’60s and ’70s combined was 1.2 million a year. Ever better state management and a warming environment boosted the catch to more than 3 million per year since with the peak coming at 4.4 million per year in the 1980s.
More than 80 percent of the increase went to commercial fishermen while the subsistence, personal-use and sport fishermen in Alaska who voted in limited entry to help out commercial fishermen got less than 20 percent.
#2 – We were here first
Johnnie-come-lately dipnetters on Kenai beaches are destroying the fishery, commercial fishermen believe.
As one put it to the governor and Cotten, “I think that dipnet fishery is unlimited and unsustainable.”
Neither is true. The fishery is limited by a short, July 10 to July 31 season, and a limit of 25 fish per permit holder. More than that, however, it is restricted by the limited stretches of river on which dipnetting is allowed.
Only so many dipnetters can dance on the sands of a little beach. Geographic and gear limitations make the fishery among the state’s most easily sustainable. At the end of the day, the dipnet fishery is limited by being an inefficient, intercept fishery that only catches significant numbers of fish when sockeye are flooding the river.
Dipnet harvests peaked in 2011 at 538,000 sockeye when just over 27,000 Alaska residents participated. The catch that year was about 10 percent of the commercial harvest by about 1,000 commercial fishermen
A lot of dipnetters rushed to get in on the action when word got out that a huge number of sockeye were returning to the Kenai.
“The sockeye salmon harvest from the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery on July 16, (2011) was more than 450,000 fish, which turned out to be a single day harvest record for this fishery,” Fish and Game later reported.
When news of a run of this magnitude leaked out, people who barely knew how to spell “dipnet,” found one and headed south from Anchorage to get in on the bounty. A significant number of them gave up on the dipnetting in subsequent years as they found out it can be a lot of work.
With 22,000 people fishing last year, the harvest was less than 300,000 fish, a season total 125,000 below that single, 12-hour commercial opening in 2011 and the equivalent of a couple good, 12-hour openings in the commercial fishery in normal conditions. This year’s harvest is expected to be even smaller, significantly smaller.
And commercial fishermen, not dipnetters, are the Johnnie-come-latelies.
The Dena’ina Athabascans fishing the Inlet when the first whites arrived used “weirs and v-shaped traps made of logs, basket traps of alders, drag nets of spruce root lines, spears, and (yes) dip nets,” Fish and Game’s James Fall wrote in a history of Inlet fishing.
The latter were sometimes used from platforms of poles called “tanik’edi” that were constructed over the inlet’s mud flats,” Fall writes. Weirs, log traps, basket traps, drag nets and spears were eventually outlawed, and even the dipnets disappeared for a time.
Gillnets, a modern version of an in-river dragnet, were for a time allowed for personal-use harvest of fish, but they were eliminated in the early 1950s at which time, Fall writes, “freshwater, snagging (with rod-and-real) became the primary harvest method for those living along the river….By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal. This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish for home use.”
The snagging ban was driven by uppity sport fishermen who didn’t think snagging “ethical.” Commercial fishermen, who’d driven the elimination of all the other personal-use fisheries, did not complain. They would soon be claiming themselves the first fishermen to have caught salmon in the Inlet.
#3 – Our fish
That so-called Alaska “limited entry permits” mean commercial fishermen are entitled to more fish than anyone else, many commercial fishermen believe.
It is a misconception.
Alaskans established limited entry – a cap on the number of fishermen allowed to participate in various Alaska fisheries – by amending the state Constitution in 1972 with salmon runs across the state seriously depressed.
The amendment did not change that provision. It simply added that “this section does not restrict the power of the State to limit entry into any fishery for purposes of resource conservation, to prevent economic distress among fishermen and those dependent upon them for a livelihood and to promote the efficient development of aquaculture in the State.”
A limited entry permit wasn’t created as a right; it was added as privilege that could be granted by the state or taken away, much like a driver’s license. The permit entitles the holder to catch and sell fish, but it doesn’t entitle him or her to a single fish – no matter what some commercial fishermen might believe.
When the law was enacted, the state had too many fishermen chasing too few fish with the end result being that none of those fishermen could make enough money to truly make commercial fishing pay.
Cook Inlet is today where it was then. There are too many fishermen chasing too few fish to make the commercial fishery profitable for all of them. The dipnetters are only a scapegoat. The 297,049 sockeye they caught last year amounted to but 17 percent of the commercial harvest.
Eliminating the dipnet fishery could conceivably have boosted the commercial fishing gross by $3,000 per fisherman, putting the average for setnetters at $12,162 and for drift netters at $18,711.
That’s not a living wage. That’s just the conversion of food in the freezers of thousands of Alaskans dipnet hobbyists to cash in the pockets of hundreds of drift and setnet hobbyists.
#4 – Too many fish
When commercial fishermen aren’t in a panic about dipnetters pirating fish, they are upset about what is called “over-escapement,” the arrival of too many fish on the spawning grounds.
One would think that if over-escapement is as big a problem as commercial fishermen like to believe it, they’d want dipnetters – who fish downstream from the in-river sonar counter – to catch a lot more fish to prevent over-escapement, but that’s a logic puzzle for another day.
The over-escapement debate is more easily resolved. There is actual science to settle this in the form of the Riker, Markov, Beverton-Holt and other stock models. You can read up on these and more in “A Fishery Managers Guidebook.”
Basically, all the formulas do the same thing. They provide an estimate for the number of salmon in a stream that produces the best return per spawner or the highest salmon yield. The two aren’t always the same.
Because of the vagaries of math, you can get a best-return per spawner rate at a number below maximum yield, not to mention that maximum yield also carries a wide range of variation. Fishery managers, it might be noted, are these days warning against maximum sustained yield (MSY), the holy grail of Kenai commercial fishermen, for these and other reasons.
“The conventional objective of maximizing biological yields or economic returns often ignores the larger question of the ecological and social costs of maximization,” the manual notes. “A broader view of fishery objectives recognizes that a sustainable fishery exists only in the context of an ecosystem that supports it. Given that the social and ecological aspects of the fishery system make up one integrated whole, the manager has to keep in mind the overall health of this integrated social–ecological system,” notes the Manager’s Guidebook.
The state of Alaska’s 2005 escapement goal review for the also Kenai warned that establishing the scientifically best number for Kenai escapement is probably impossible because of all the concern about over-escapement.
“The lack of observations at high escapement levels means quite literally that both of these stock-recruit models are largely conjecture and fail to provide scientifically credible support for definition of a biological escapement goal for the
Kenai River stock of sockeye salmon,” state scientists wrote.
Why are there a lack of observations at high escapement levels?
Because Cook Inlet commercial fishermen go nuts at the idea that a huge number of sockeye – anything upward of 1 to 1.3 million – will be allowed to escape their nets to make it into the river.
If commercial fishermen really wanted to settle the over-escapement debate and establish a scientifically credible MSY, they’d need to agree to stop fishing for a few years and plug the Kenai with sockeye to see what happens.
But even then the answer might not be clear. Biologists all agree there is a point at which escapement becomes a problem; it’s just a hard point to identify with precision.
#5 – Population growth
All those damn city folk are the problem, commercial fishermen believe.
And there is no doubt Alaska, and especially the state’s urban underbelly, has grown.
About four out of every seven Alaskans now live in this region of the state. There is little denying this has led to increased competition for salmon, but it hasn’t increased nearly as much as the size of the resource has grown.
Personal-use and sport harvests of sockeye have grown by about 500,000 fish since limited entry. Commercial harvests have grown by about five times as much.
Commercial harvests historically at an average of 1.2 million per year in the 1960s and 1970s grew by 3.2 million sockeye to 4.4 million in the 1980s, shrunk back a little to 3.8 million total in the 1990s and 3 million in the 2000s.
The 2010s started off well with a harvest of more than 5 million but then began sputtering downward.
All told, that’s a benefit to the commercial fishery of more than 100 million sockeye since 1980. Sport and personal-use fishermen, the people who voted limited entry into place to help out commercial fishermen, split a far smaller increase, and most of that came years ago.
There is, at this time, no real indication of signficant increases due to population pressures on the resource. Society is changing. Fewer people fish. Personal-use permit numbers are down.
Alaska resident angler numbers appear to have plateaued. More tourists are coming north every year. Non-resident fishing license sales have long outnumbered those of residents, and the last time the non-resident fishing business was studied, individual harvests were small.
Still, commercial fishermen can work themselves into a frenzy about the number of fish boxes shipped south from Alaska by tourists. A large seafood box holds 35 pounds of salmon. The biggest harvests of sockeye by anglers on the Kenai River now push close to 500,000 fish.
If every one of those fish was caught by a tourist, and if they were all shipped south, 85,714 boxes would be required.
Commercial fishermen do not measure their catch by the box, but if they did, the industry would have needed 340,000 boxes for Cook Inlet sockeye alone last year based on the 12-million-pound catch, plus 216,000 boxes for pinks, 101,000 boxes for chums, 54,000 boxes for coho; and 5,000 boxes for Chinook.
All told, Cook Inlet’s total harvest of more than 25 million pounds of salmon would have required more than 718,000 boxes,. That’s somewhere around 400 miles of seafood boxes, or enough to stretch the length of the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Kenai and back again.
And though that is about 84 times the maximum possible tourist catch, which is in and of itself an unrealistic number, it’s fun to bash tourists.