The beaches of Cook Inlet were quiet and the waters empty Wednesday as the return of late-run sockeye salmon to Alaska’s fabled Kenai River appeared to be coming to an end at last.
With a healthy escapement of more than 1 million fish in-river and daily counts now falling from near 20,000 three days ago to less than 1,500 on Tuesday, the run looks set to tie for the latest on record since 1979.
But once again, controversy is brewing.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association has accused the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) of violating the intent if not the letter of the law with an unprecedented opening of commercial drift-net fishing for salmon throughout much of Upper Cook Inlet on Aug. 23.
Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former commercial fisherman, on that date used his emergency order authority to override the Central District Drift Gillnet Management Plan approved by the Board of Fisheries (BOF).
The governor-appointed, Legislature-approved Fish Board is the state agency that sets fishing seasons, bag limits and harvest methods designed to spread the salmon catch among commercial, sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries all around the Inlet that laps at the beaches of Alaska’s largest city.
Cotten’s emergency order, according to KRSA, “ignored long-standing regulations that restrict the commercial fleet to the extreme west side of Cook Inlet after August 15. The decision by ADF&G violates explicit Alaska Board of Fisheries allocation intent in all Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plans.”
At the time the order was issued, area biologist Brian Marston estimated there were about 45,000 Kenai sockeye in the Inlet still on their way back to the river. He expected about 50 of the Inlet’s 573 commercial drift permit holders to cast a net for the fish at the tail-end of what has been a miserable season for commercial fishermen in the Inlet.
As it turned out, only 29 boats fished, and they caught but 209 sockeye. They did far better, however, on coho – a species prized by anglers and the reason for the Aug. 15 closure of the east side of the Inlet. That angered KRSA, the state’s most active and visible sportfishing group.
The late-August closure, KRSA pointed out, was specifically intended to ensure “a sport fish priority for coho salmon heading to Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Kenai River.”
KRSA executive director Ricky Gease said Cotten set a bad precedent with his action.
“ADF&G went outside the management plan without justification and as a result prioritized commercial harvests of coho salmon over sport fisheries,” he said in a press release. “About three-quarters of the fish harvested by commercial drifters on August 23 were coho salmon heading for rivers that are popular with anglers.”
ADF&G has in the past made it a policy to avoid overriding BOF ordered fishery closures. A request from former Alaska Rep. Les Gara, R-Alaska, to Cotten to extend the dipnet season last year because of a slow early returns of sockeye fell on deaf ears even though plenty of surplus sockeye were Kenai bound.
This year the dipnet fishery, like the commercial fishery, was shut down early because of the weakness of the sockeye run in July. It was never reopened to give dipnetters a second chance at sockeye when the run came on unusually strong in August.
Historically, the average midpoint of the late-run sockeye return is July 23. Only twice since 1979 has the midpoint come in August. This year now looks like it is going to match 2006 for the latest midpoint – Aug. 3.
That would mark this one of only three years on record in which more sockeye returned to the Kenai in August than in July. Marston said he has no idea why. Neither does anyone else.
And though Fish and Game ended up meeting the in-river goal for salmon, the season was a major disappointment. Dipnet catches are expected to be down significantly. The fishing was so bad a lot of dipnetters didn’t even bother to make the 150- to 200-mile drive from Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough south to the Kenai.
The City of Kenai reported traffic was down about a third in the pay-to-park service area it runs for dipnetters near the mouth of the river. Dipnetters usually fuel the city’s only profit-making service, but it looked to be more of a break-even affair this year once the management costs were weighed against the small dipnet turnout.
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen suffered a major blow in the Inlet where the season’s catch fell just short of 814,000. That was less than half the forecast commercial catch of 1.9 million. Another 700,000 sockeye were expected to be caught in the dipnet, sport and subsistence fisheries.
Fishery managers are still assessing the catch in those fisheries, but expect it will be under 500,000 fish, probably well under 500,000 fish. But even if the combined catch for the non-commercial fisheries reaches 400,000, a one-third share of the harvest going to those fishermen would be unusual.
Especially coming as it does after BOF actions of a year ago to try to maximize the commercial catch, and a visit by Gov. Bill Walker to the Kenai in July to reassure commercial fishermen that he and Cotten were doing their best to see that the commercial fishery got more fish.
When new Cook Inlet regulations were being set in 2017, BOF chairman John Jensen, a Walker appointee, said the Board was loosening restrictions on commercial fishing in order to “allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Many commercial fishermen, however, remain of the belief they are being treated unfairly. They view themselves as a commercial minority being swamped by a majority of fish-hungry urban dipnetters and anglers as the population of the 49th state slowly but steadily grows and tourism ticks upward.
Many were angry they were ordered to the beach in the later part of July even though the dipnet fishery continued for days after with the dipnetters catching a few fish. The problem for fishery managers was that there weren’t enough fish to risk a commercial opening.
Testifying before the state Senate Resources Committee in March of last year, Jensen explained that Inlet is difficult to manage because there are too many fishermen and too few salmon most years, and everyone is trying to catch fish in a small window of time.
Last year, he said, “setnetters were severely restricted…because a lot of them leave to go to their other jobs. Cook Inlet is not one of the biggest commercial fishing areas and has an over-prescription of permits. Most people have other jobs in order to support their fishing habit.”