Nature taketh away


One of the lucky, a Kenai dipnetter prepares to dispatch a salmon/Craig Medred photo

Kenai River salmon dipnetters now staring into empty freezers will not be surprised to learn that the official harvest numbers for the season are out, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has confirmed what everyone knew:

The fishing sucked.

Despite the fears of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen that dipnetters were scooping up all hundreds of thousands of sockeye while commercial gill netters were on the beach because of a weak return, that didn’t happen.

The Kenai harvest came in at about 165,000 sockeye – less than half of the long-term average.

The average dipnet catch for 2018 in all Cook Inlet personal-use fisheries was 15.7 sockeye per permit, down from more than 18 fish per permit in 2016 when almost 4,000 more dipnetters took to the water. The limit is 25 salmon per household with 10 for each additional household member.

Catch per permit numbers have been falling since 2015 even though large numbers of fishermen have been abandoning the dipnet fishery. Participation has fallen every year since 2015. More than 8,500 fewer dipnetters took to the water last year than in 2015.

The big drop between 2017 participation and 2018 participation would indicate the bad fishing on the Kenai River discouraged thousands from participating in the dipnet fishery last year.

A Kenai specific harvest is impossible to calculate because of the way the data is gathered. About 37 percent of the sockeye harvest last year came from the Kasilof River, the other major sockeye producer in the region. It saw a stronger run of sockeye.

A decent-size sockeye will provide a couple of filets each big enough to feed a family of four. So figure the average dipnetter got almost 36 meals out of the July fishery.

By that measure, a family of four eating salmon once a week since the end of the season would be running out of fish about now. If they were eating salmon twice a week, the supply is long gone.

“I think all dipnetters need to apply, just like the comfishers, for federal disaster relief,” Ken Federico, a longtime dipnet advocate, texted Friday. “This is what the argument is for comfishers to qualify for disaster monies.”

Unfortunately, personal-use fishermen do not qualify for disaster aid. Recognizing that, Federico called for changes in the way the state manages commercial harvests in the Inlet and in the regulation of the dipnet fishery.

Fishery managers last year allowed commercial drift netters to crop off about 500,000 sockeye in early July. Those fish turned out to be a big portion of a biologically allowable harvest that proved to be unexpectedly small.

By season’s end, the commercial fishery had caught barely over 1 million sockeye; the dipnet fishery had pulled about 290,000 out of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and Fish Creek; and in-river Kenai anglers, which support a thriving Kenai-Soldotna tourism business, are thought to have caught a couple hundred thousand.

Numbers on the sport harvest are not yet available.

The big drop

Sport Fish Division Regional Supervisor Tom Vania said the Kenai dipnet harvest was only 47 percent of 10-year average. State numbers also reflected what was obvious on the beaches at the mouth of the Kenai  during the season:

A lot of people stayed home after hearing reports about how bad the fishing.

Only about 25,000 people bothered to pick up the Cook Inlet personal-use permits required to fish, down from about 30,000 in 2017 and far below the peak of 36,000 in 2014.

Of those who did obtain permits, about a quarter never fished. That echoed 2017, another year when dipnetters had to work hard to get their fish. Participation has gone as high as 89 percent when there are a lot of sockeye available to be caught.

From 2011 through 2015, significantly more people fished – 27,000 to 28,000 per year – than even bothered to picked up permits in 2018 – 24,722.

The number of permit holders who hit the beach – 18,536 – in 2018 was the lowest since 2006 where there were but 16,532. The total sockeye harvest – 165,028 – was also the lowest since the 127,630 in ’06.

The numbers come as no surprise. The state closed the river to dipnetting a day before the normal end of the season and later shutdown in-river sport fishing.

At that time, there were fewer than 435,000 sockeye past an in-river sonar counter expected to count a million or more. Alaska fishery managers hadn’t seen a number that small at the end of July since 1979 when the state was still recovering from a salmon crash caused by less than stellar fisheries management and a two-decade-long, cold-water regime in the North Pacific Ocean. 

With the fish missing, the City of Kenai reported dipnet traffic falling by about a third at its pay-to-park service area at 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.

Resource protected

For the fish, at least, the situation would eventually improve. With the tail end of the return holding steady, the state eventually met its in-river goal of more than 1 million sockeye.

Anglers even got another, end-of-season shot at the fish, but there was fallout.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is now leading a charge to get the Alaska Board of Fisheries to categorize harvest priorities in the state’s non-subsistence areas, of which the Kenai Peninsula is one.

The KRSA proposal puts the harvest of salmon by  “Alaska residents for personal and family consumption” at the top of the list followed by enough salmon to meet the needs of both “residents and non-residents who have participated in state fisheries in the past and can reasonably be
expected to participate in the future.”

Those two priorities are somewhat redundant. The dipnet fishery is at the mouth of the Kenai and most of the sportfishing occurs upstream from the salmon-counting sonar. To get enough fish into the river to meet the demands of a prioritized dipnet harvest, fishery managers would inevitably end up putting more salmon upstream past the counter.

“I believe the yearly average (harvest) is 350,000, at least off the top of my head,” Federico said. He was close, depending on which average is used. The 10-year average harvest is 368,866; the five-year average, 332,137.

It’s hard to say how many salmon state fisheries managers would have needed to put in the Kenai before July 31 this year to get the dipnet harvest up near that level, but it would have clearly been several hundred thousand more than the 435,000 that passed the sonar by that date.

The 2017 harvest was 297,000 with 747,000 past the sonar as of July 31. The 2016 harvest was 259,000 with 912,000 past the sonar. The 2015 harvest was 378,000 with 891,000 past the sonar by July 31.

The correlation between dipnet harvests and the number of fish allowed to escape commercial nets to make it in-river before July 31 is not direct, but in general the dipnet harvest reflects in-river returns.

Low harvests correlate with low numbers of fish making it into the river in July. Meanwhile, there is an extremely strong correlation between harvests and days when the Kenai sees big pulses of salmon entering the river.

The big harvest in 2015 came with the sonar counter clicking off 49,000 or more sockeye on eight of the 13 days between July 19 and the end of the season. The lower harvest on a bigger July run the next year was tied to only three days topping the 49,000 salmon bar, and two of them came unexpectedly early on July 11 and July 15.

State fishery managers allowed almost 1.4 million sockeye into the Kenai in 2016, almost 200,000 above the upper goal set by the state Board of Fisheries. It was in effort to avoid such a replay in 2018 that managers allowed early commercial fishing in the Inlet despite indications the sockeye run might be weak.

That decision helped the commercial fishermen, who got most of what little they got out of the 2018 season early, but hurt dipnetters.

“Everyone was so disgusted last season on the run and the open throttle given to comfishers,” Federico said. “We need to press (new Gov. Mike) Dunleavy to take the dipnetting calls away from the commercial side of Fish and Game.”

Dunleavy was elected last year in part on his support for sport and personal-use fisheries. Former Gov. Bill Walker had been a big advocate for commercial fishing interests. He and his commercial-fishing oriented Commissioner of Fish and Game, former commercial fishermen Sam Cotten, journeyed to the Kenai  last year to try to appease commercial interests beached by low returns.

They just nodded their heads when one of those fishermen charged that the only problem on the Kenai was that the “dipnet fishery is unlimited and unsustainable.” Cotten at least knew better.

Both participation in the fishery and catch have been falling since 2015. Dipnetters appear to have abandoned the fishery as it has become harder to obtain sockeye.

The dipnet fishery is a classic, density-dependent fishery. If a lot of fish get past commercial nets and into the mouth of the Kenai, the dipnetters catch a lot of fish. If only a small number of fish get past the commercial nets and into the mouth of the Kenai, as happened last year, the dipnetters catch comparatively few fish.

What happened in 2018 was wholly predictable. Few fish in-river equals fewer fish harvested by dipnetters.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story under-reported the average catch per permit in the Cook Inlet personal-use fishery.



12 replies »

  1. Good luck at BOF statewide mtg., may the best fish pundit win!
    The Alaskan fisheries are a pie, which all user groups work constantly to keep their share of, or of grabbing someone else’s.
    Been the same since I got personally involved in ‘82. The players have changed, though the game remains the same.
    BOF & ADF&G meetings continue on, while the new gov’s economic advisor, pulls all the fat & gristle out of the state budget. Hopefully, in the end, we welcome will have enough biologists to manage our fisheries, after any new BOF directives.
    The more regulations that are put in place the more time and energy is needed to run it.
    One reason why our Fed budget keeps climbing no matter who is in charge. I am one of the 70 million baby boomers (1946-1963), who have made a mess of things.
    God help us to get out of this turmoil and destruction. May the Lord Jesus Christ save us all.

    • So monk if you thought a bit deeper than usual you might realize three reasons for medreds methods . #1 a safe rule for professionalism is to write or talk about what you know well . Thus his specific subjects he knows well . If you branch out the odds of passing poor info is higher so he does us a service to stay with his expertise- though I to would love to get his touch of all subjects . #2 follow up details shows his ability for full analysis and thought as well as follow up more fully educates his readers . Something this generation lacks #3 a person does best at what they have passion for . His case – outdoors , fish and Alaska in general. I’m sure we would benefit if he branched into everything but as they say – jack of all trades master at none . Is not his motto as far as I can tell . So instead of bitching why don’t you add heavily to the discussion and enlighten your fellow citizens. Guessing you read this column for free . I for one would like to hear your take on more subjects in depth. Hopefully your magic 8 ball can predict something other than negativity from monk ; )

  2. Craig,

    The KRSA proposal that says “residents and non-residents who have participated in state fisheries in the past and can reasonably be expected to participate in the future” concerns me. The way this is worded one could say that if a child born today, in Alaska or elsewhere, might not ever be allowed to sport fish in Alaska in the future because it wasn’t born in time. This sounds a lot like the limited entry commercial fisheries, except for with sports fishing.

    I don’t know what the answer is or what the cause is for that matter, and clearly I’m not the only one. When you said “Few fish in-river equals fewer fish harvested by dipnetters” the same is true for salt water and the commercial fishermen. I would guess that to a much lesser degree the same is true for sports fishermen since, other than last year with closing the season only to reopen it later, the time allowed is much different. I know of plenty of sports fishermen who can catch 15.7 sockeye in less time than it takes a dipper to get 15.7, of course they do so over days and sometimes weeks but catch per unit effort is where the real math is done.

    Having a naturally variable fishery that depends on tide, wind, rain, temperature, and many many other factors can lead to bigger or smaller or earlier or later runs, runs can be compact or spread out. Commerical guys get the least amount of time but they have the most efficient gear, sports guys get the most but have the least efficient gear, but dippers get the least amount of time and the dates are written into stone.

    Perhaps a longer dipping season or the ability to manage it better by shifting dates or blocks of dates might help. With the technology we all carry in our pockets on a daily basis, maybe an in season count of dippers catch would help with managing that. There are a lot of people who take advantage of the special privileges residents of this state are provided, like dipnetting, that should be looked into more; so should the waste that some generate from catching more than they can handle or use.

    One thing I know for sure, when the size of the pie shrinks everybody gets a smaller piece.

  3. Why not have and accept both (wild/farmed)? The wild will rebound, making recreational and dippers happy. Issue a limited number of wild permits, thus driving the price per pound up. Commercial can supplement wild with farmed. Both types of salmon have their advantages ranging from Omega 3’s, Vitamins, worms, toxins, etc.. I can see room for both. Am I wrong?

  4. “A decent-size sockeye will provide a couple of filets each big enough to feed a family of four. So figure the average Kenai dipnetter will put 18 meals in the public landfill out of the July fishery.”

    Fixed it!

    • I don’t buy that monk! Not saying that some fish don’t end up there just that that’s not “average.” Once those fish are processed it’s anybody’s guess as to how they are used-most likely not used as bait for trapping or halibut fishing as that’s illegal, but sending to landfill is legal. That could be due to freezer-burn or freezer malfunction.

    • Respectfully disagree. Can’t wipe out one user group even after that particular user group (commfish) has been doing everything its power to wipe out the 3 other competing user groups for decades.

      A couple solutions for your consideration:

      1. Require any Cook Inlet EO to be approved by all 6 offices in play – Sportfish and Commfish offices in Kenai, ANC and the MatSu. A tie vote = no opening.
      2. Repeal the ban on fish farming. Start trading limited entry permits for onshore / offshore fish farming locations on state land / in state waters. The more nets we get out of the water, the more fish hit the fresh water.

      You can also quit giving state loans for commercial fishermen and swing that money toward establishment and operation of fish farming in Cook Inlet and PWS. Cheers –

      • Although I am against tidal fish farming in general, I think that these ideas are pretty solid and from where we are at right now, a unique perspective. I definitely think that land based farming is where it’s at for the future, which might prove to be a challenge here in AK, however, the EO process is currently a joke.

      • Jack, I think your “in general” thinking on fish farming is pretty solid. And the “land based farming” is probably a total bust for us (Alaska) for the main reason that we are not close to any markets. Add in the problems associated with feeding these fish (from wild fish stocks) and you have something that’s going nowhere IMO.
        If someone comes up with a soybean based feed, then things could be different. That still would not take care of the market issue, however.

      • Agimarc, did you see where the Gov. is getting shot down on his attempt to be able to use money however he wants once it’s been appropriated to a particular project?
        So much for being able to swing that loan money towards fish farming. You and he think alike but no cigar, it seems.

Leave a Reply