A news analysis
UPDATE: This story was edited on Aug. 7 to reflect the loss the city of Kenai took on the dipnet fishery, a historic city moneymaker, and to update in-river sockeye numbers.
With the Kenai River – Alaska’s most famous salmon stream – stumbling toward a bare minimum sockeye salmon escapement, which it might not make, and commercial fishermen madder than hell in the belief they were cheated out of their share of the catch, it is a good time to look at the numbers.
Without doubt, it was a bad year for commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet, a very bad year. But it was a bad year for all sockeye salmon fishermen and, comparatively, the gillnetters did not suffer nearly as badly as a sympathetic Gov. Bill Walker was led to believe when he met with them.
They did shoulder a bigger share of the “burden of conservation,” as commercial fishermen like to say, but it still looks like the ruling minority of 1,000 active, commercial fishing permit holders will end up with some 65 to 70 percent of the sockeye harvest, just down from the 73 percent they were expected to get.
So let’s get on with the accounting which starts way back in November of last year when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) produced its annual 2018 Upper Cook Inlet Sockeye Salmon Forecast. The forecast called for a significantly worse return to the Inlet than commercial fishermen have come to expect in recent times, but by no means a disaster.
As forecast, the harvest was to have come in at about 100,000 fish above the low return of 2017, which was about 1 million below a 20-year average inflated by large runs of sockeye in the 2000s and at the very start of this decade.
The five-year, average, commercial harvest counting this year is now down around 1.9 million, though some commercial fishermen still cling to the idea the 4.1 million average of the period 1980 to 2000 was the norm.
That period of great productivity, it should be noted, came after an unusual cold period in Alaska which produced an average harvest of only 1.1 million per year in the 1960s and 1970s.
This year, commercial fishermen saw a return to the bad old days of 1972 when the wayback machine was only supposed to have gone to 2001.
As it turned out, the ADF&G forecast for 2018 was way off. But here is the expectation state biologists established for the upper Inlet:
- Total Run 4.6 million
- Escapement (spawning) 2.0 million
- UCI Commercial Harvest 1.9 million
- Other UCI Harvests 0.7 million
Those “Other UCI Harvests” go largely to sport fishermen and Alaskan-only, personal-use dipnetters on the Kenai River, although there are small sport and dipnet fisheries on the Kasilof and other streams. Still, the harvests are so small compared to the Kenai that they can be ignored in a statistical discussion of who got the sockeye.
At the time of the ADF&G forecast, 43 percent of the 2018 run – the so-called escapement – was committed to streams and rivers to ensure Alaskans all have sockeye to catch in the future; 41 percent was earmarked for commercial fishermen; and 15 percent was to be split between personal-use, sport and a handful of subsistence fishermen.
All of this began to change in mid-July when it became obvious the forecast was flawed.
At mid-season, to help boost the commercial harvest in a low-return year, ADF&G reduced the escapement allocation for the Kenai River from 1 million to 900,000. It now looks unlikely that goal will be met.
When the Department closed the river to all dipnetting and sport fishing a week ago, it said it hoped to meet a bare minimum spawning goal of 700,000. It looks like that goal will be met if 20,000 or more sockeye per day continue to sneak into the Kenai for another week or so.
The count today was over 600,000. Historically, the run is near 90 percent of the return and would be expected to fall fast from this point forward, but it looks to have a larger than expected late component, which would be a good thing.
There are, however, questions about how many pink salmon the sonar is counting as sockeye. The Kenai is full of sockeye-size humpies this year. The state apportions the sonar catch based on the ratio of humpies and sockeye seen in an intermittent test fishery downstream from the sonar. The accuracy of that method of sorting the count is, however, an unknown.
Where’d the fish go?
Nobody can see the future perfectly and the return number is still in flux, but it looks like by the time all is said and done, the escapement that ADF&G forecast will be down about 500,000, the commercial catch down about 1.2 million, and the “other” down about 400,000.
Neither sport nor dipnet catches have been officially tallied yet, but state biologists say estimates are possible based on past years. The year 2016 saw a slow trickle of sockeye into the Kenai very similar to what happened this year.
The 2016 dipnet catch was under 128,000 but for mathematical simplicity it will be rounded up to 150,000 here. The 2018 sport fishery, which went from a three-fish limit to a one-fish limit and was then closed altogether, will probably end up harvesting about 150,000 sockeye as well, according to the best estimates.
If all these numbers are added together – 1.5 million escapement, plus the 700,000 commercial harvest and the 300,000 million dipnet/sport harvest, the total sockeye return comes in at about 2.5 million, or about 54 percent of the forecast.
One might note, however, that this number is about 70 percent of the lower boundary of a forecast range of 3.3 to 5.5 million. It’s probably unfair to judge the forecast by the best guess within a broad range even if that is something Alaskans have been encouraged to do by the way the information is presented.
Of a shrunken return of sockeye approximately 800,000 fish short of the low end of the forecast range, 60 percent ended up being used for escapement. That is good; streams full of spawning salmon ensure there will be salmon in the future. Another 28 percent of the return went to commercial fishermen. And the remaining 12 percent was largely split between dipnetters and anglers.
Where the Kenai fish wars get serious, of course, is where the allocation between users begins. Most, though far from all sockeye harvesters, agree that optimum escapements should be maintained. The main objection comes from a minority of commercial fishermen who believe that no matter what the science says, radically smaller spawning goals would produce better average harvests.
Some of the latter group might be happy with only 600,000 spawners in the Kenai if that is how things turn out, but most won’t. But let’s get back to the human allocation issue.
With only approximately 1 million sockeye killed this year, the commercial fishery lost about 63 percent of its forecast harvest of 1.9 million and the other users lost about 57 percent of their forecast harvest of 700,000.
Head to head, the pre-season forecast called for commercial fishermen to get 73 percent of the harvest and other users the remaining 27 percent.
In the end, with a harvest of about 1 million, the split looks to have shifted 70-30 if the estimates on sport and dipnet harvests are accurate. Commercial fishermen think the estimates low, but the estimates might well be high.
The City of Kenai was reporting business was down about a third at its popular pay-to-park dipnet area along the north beach at the river’s mouth. The dipnet parking lot has historically been the city’s only profit-making public service.
Because of the drop in dipnet traffic following reports of dipnetters needing to put in a lot of time and effort to harvest very few fish, the city reported gross revenue at the lot fell from $547,000 last year to $375,000 this year – a 31 percent drop.
The city anticipated $578,000 in revenue this year, KSRM Radio in Kenai reported. The city lost about $100,000 in 2016 when the dipnet fishery was closed early, the Peninsula Clarion reported earlier this year.
It is losing about $200,000 this year, but the Clarion earlier reported a $274,651 balance in the dipnet account at the end of fiscal 2017.
And maybe despite how bad the dipnet fishery was for Kenai, commercial fishermen could be right about a higher than thought dipnet catch. So to fudge the numbers in their direction and to remove the rounding error (the actual commercial catch was 677,817) let’s say the split could be as low as 65-35 no matter how unlikely that appears.
Both the sport and dipnet fisheries are density dependent. If the river is plugged with fish, they catch a lot. If there are few fish in the river, their catch plummets.
There was fewer than 544,000 sockeye in the river when the fishery closed to angling on Saturday. That was only about 65 percent of the number in river last year when the sport fishery got going good in August. There is no August sockeye fishery this year.
And the closure was preceded by a two-third reduction in the sport fishery limit from three fish to one, and the early closure of the dipnet fishery with only about 60 percent the number of fish in-river as for the same time in 2017.
With Walker now having entered the fray to tell commercial fishermen, “I believe the most important part of what we do is not just about science. We need to hear from people whose livelihoods who are impacted by it.”
And Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten adding that “we will not ignore economic difficulties, but it’s a balancing act here that’s very difficult to deal with at times.”
There are some obvious questions to be asked:
- What should be the percentage split be between the commercial and other fisheries? Was the 73-27 split in the pre-season forecast unfair to commercial interests? Should it be 75-25 commercial or 80-20 or 90-10 or some other number?
- If the split is further shifted toward the commercial fishery, who should give up fish? The dipnet fishery, which is limited to Alaskans looking to fill their freezers with sockeye, or the sport fishery which has become a mainstay of a Kenai Peninsula tourism industry the local newspaper now says is “the second largest private sector employer on the peninsula, behind health care….and is responsible for 25 percent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s total collected sales tax.”
- Lastly, in years of weak returns, such as this one, should dipnetters and anglers – as some commercial fishermen have suggested – be ordered out of the water to “watch and wait” if the escapement counter lags behind the projected in-river return needed to meet escapement?
Fish and Game data would indicate such a rule would have taken the “other” fisheries out of the picture on or about July 14 of this year, and kept the dipnetters and anglers out of the sockeye fishery for the rest of the year.
That could have made another 100,000 to 200,000 sockeye available to the commercial fishery unless the rule triggered earlier ADF&G concerns about run strength, leading to immediate commercial closures.
The commercial fishery harvested about 84,000 sockeye on July 16. Would that harvest have been allowed with the sport and dipnet fisheries already closed?
Several commercial openings followed. Would they have been allowed with sport and dipnet fishermen still shut down and political pressure on ADF&G likely growing?
And if the commercial fisheries had gone on in this situation, would the outcome have been worth more or less to the state?
If the commercial fishery was able to catch another 200,000 sockeye thanks to such closures, it would be worth about $1.5 mllion to commercial fishermen at $1.50 per pound on average for a sockeye at a 5-pound average weight.
Split among about 1,000 limited entry permit holders who are active, that averages out to $1,500 per permit. So individual fishermen would have pocketed as much money as a Permanent Fund Dividend dividend and a half.
If, of course, they were Alaska residents. Eighty-two percent of commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet claim resident status. How many of them qualify as PFD residents is unknown. The state has varying standards for who is and isn’t a resident, and the standard for commercial fishing residence is the most lenient.
The state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission say “an individual is a resident of this state if, on the date of permit application, issuance, or renewal, and throughout the 12-month period before that date, that individual maintained their domicile in this state and neither claimed residency in another state, territory, or country nor obtained benefits under a claim of residency in another state, territory, or country.”
The legal definition of a “domicile” is different from “residence.”
“‘Domicile’ means a legal residence which is the place where a person has fixed dwelling with an intention of making it his/her permanent home,” according to USLegal.com. “As the term domicile includes residence, the scope and significance of the term domicile is larger than the term residence. An individual may have several residences whereas; s/he will have only one domicile.”
An Alaska commercial fisherman could actually live in another state or country for most of the year and hang onto CFEC residency if he or she had a home in Alaska and considered that “his/her permanent home.”
In the eyes of the CFEC, Roland Maw – the short-lived, outlaw member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries – would have been fine spending a lot of time in a house in Montana but claiming Alaska as his domicile if only he hadn’t tried to save a few bucks by obtaining a Montana resident hunting license.
Oce the one-time director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful fishing lobby, picked up that resident Montana license, he had bigger problems than the CFEC. He is scheduled to go on trial this fall for stealing PFDs. The Alaska Permanent Fund contains the same clause as the CFEC regarding benefits obtained as a resident of another state.
Managing in the dark
But residency is a small issue here. The bigger issue is this:
If you have to weigh a $1,500-per-commercial-fisherman bonus, or less, against a sockeye-angling closure sure to cause havoc for that Kenai Peninsula tourism business, what do you do?
Or even a bigger commercial-fishermen bonus against the tourism economy, what do you do?
How do the costs versus benefits work out? Does the Kenai Peninsula economy win or lose by imposing restrictions on sport and dipnet fisheries to put another 100,000 or 200,000 sockeye in the holds of the boats of Kenai commercial fishermen?
And finally, the best question of all:
Do Walker, Cotten or any others in state government have a clue as to the answer to the previous question given the fact there isn’t a single economist in ADF&G charged with gathering the data needed to make an informed decision.
In fact, there isn’t a single economist in ADF&G, period.
An agency that has long prided itself on data-based management has for decades managed the state’s fisheries without a thought as to the economic data. One could call this economic mismanagement, but it’s not.
It’s economic non-management, which might be even worse.