Fishing fair


An Alaska king salmon, the fish Cook Inlet commercial fishermen say is costing them a lot of money/Craig Medred photo

Unhappy about state efforts to protect a struggling run of Kenai River king salmon, Cook Inlet commercial fishermen are headed into court today to ask a judge to order the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G)  to let them kill more fish.

Among their legal arguments in a wandering, 15-page memorandum asking for an injunction against the state agency is the claim that the national interest is threatened if fishermen gillnetting off the coast of the Kenai Peninsula don’t catch as many fish as possible.

 “Fish in Alaska are a natural resource of the United States, not just Alaska and not just sport fishermen,” says the suit filed Friday in the Kenai Superior Court by the Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund. “The Alaska salmon resources are important to the entire nation….The Magnuson-Stevens Act created a ‘national program for the conservation and management of the fishery resources of the  United States.'”

State managers and the Board of Fisheries, the suit contends, are not following the federal plan by favoring the productivity of the biggest of the Pacific salmon, the king or Chinook, over the commercial catch of sockeye.

Such management costs commercial fishermen money, the suit charges, and the collateral damage results in a long list of other victims:

The crew, the fish buyers, the processors, the seasonal employees of canneries, the manufacturers of ice, the makers of totes for fish and ice, the manufacturers of nets, the manufacturers of skiffs, the trucks and planes that transport commercial fish; the drivers and pilots who operate the transportation of  commercial fish, the marketers of commercially harvested salmon, restaurants, and many other businesses are adversely affected by arbitrary closures and restrictions capriciously imposed by ADF&G.”

Indiscriminate nets

The simple biological problem in the Inlet is by-catch. Gill-snagging commercial nets can’t tell a sockeye salmon from a king salmon. The sockeyes are money fish for the commercial fishery, but in the process of catching them, kings are netted as well.

To date, about 1.2 million sockeye and 2,200 king have been caught in the commercial fishery. The count isn’t in on the king catch in the sport fishery, but it is believed to be a fraction of that. The personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river is supposed to have a harvest of zero; dipnetters were this year required to release unharmed any king they might catch.

As of Tuesday, a sonar on the Kenai River had counted only 8,900 kings in-river. That is below the 2018 count of 9,400 on the same day, and the 2019 run appears to be fading fast.

The Kenai was once world-famous for its late-run king salmon run, and its big fish. The world record 97-pound, 4-ounce king was caught in the Kenai in 1985. But the glow has faded from the fishery this decade with the kings getting smaller and fewer in number by the season.

The costs to Kenai community businesses have been in the tens of millions per year and could approach $100 million a year. State officials have been trying to rebuild the run to its previous glory, but Mother Nature is not cooperating.

State biologists remain optimistic the minimum goal of 13,500 spawners in-river will be met this year, but admit it could be close. The lawsuit argues the state should be managing on the basis of the preseason forecast of almost 22,000 kings.

“The commissioner admits that the forecast for late-run large kings this year is 21,746,” the suit argues. “That forecast is well above the minimum SEG (spawning escapement goal), but the commissioner concluded that the department cannot project the SEG would be achieved without restrictions to the sport,  personal use, and commercial fisheries.”

Worried about king numbers early on, the department restricted sport-fishing in the river, banned dipnetters from keeping kings, shortened fishing times in the commercial fishery, and ordered the use of shallower gillnets in the belief some kings will escape by swimming beneath them.

Kings are known to generally travel deeper in the water column than sockeye. A 2015 study of shallower nets conducted by Canadian scientists concluded they could significantly reduce king salmon by-catch while still maintaining large harvests of sockeye.

The lawsuit says the nets are harder to find, cost money and some people question whether they truly work. The nets, the lawsuit contends, are just one more onerous rule imposed on the 1,100 commercial fishermen of the Inlet who annually catch most of the salmon returning to the region.

“Management actions by ADF&G  such as last minute, short notice openings, arbitrary mesh restrictions, arbitrary length of net from shore restrictions, arbitrary, willy-nilly closures of the normal fishing periods (Mondays and Thursdays), and the failure to allow at least 48 hour per week openings during the sockeye run  cause disruptive and irreparable harm to the CIFF members, the related businesses and community interests, and the health of the fish stocks,” the suit says.

Too many fish

The latter argument as to the health of fish stocks centers on the lawsuit’s claim that failure to catch more fish in the commercial fishery leads to dangerous over-escapements of sockeye salmon.

 “To state the obvious,” the lawsuit says, “once the fish have passed by the CIFF member nets and entered the Kasilof or Kenai Rivers, it is too late to reopen the ESSN (East side set net) fishery with any effect. The sockeye fish stocks will be damaged by over escapement, the CIFF members will be harmed financially, and the economics of this community through the businesses and employees that depend on commercial sockeye fishing will be harmed. Period.”

The idea of damage from over-escapement has been debunked by both state studies and Outside studies.

After completing a 2007 study of 40 different river systems with over-escapement, state researchers reported they’d found five cases in which spawning sockeye produced so many fry that the young over-grazed plankton in the freshwater lakes in which sockeyes spend their first year or two.

“In three of these stocks, returns per spawner fell below replacement for two to five years following consecutive over-escapements that were greater than twice the upper escapement goal range,” the study says. “These observations were consistent with results from whole lake experiments that have shown that overgrazing by large fry populations for two or more consecutive years caused the highest level of restructuring of zooplankton populations and the slowest recovery time.

“However, as seen in the review of salmon stocks in British Columbia we
did not observe long-term stock collapse of any of the 40 stocks that could be attributed to over-escapement.”

The Kenai River’s upper sockeye escapement goal is 1.2 million sockeye, and some biologists think it is too low. The escapement goal is also lower than the sonar count,  given that in-river, rod-and-real fisheries catch 300,000 to 350,000 sockeye upstream from the sonar.

Just to get to an escapement of 1.2 million, more than 1.5 million sockeye need to get into the river. To double the escapement, the state would probably need to put more than 2.7 million sockeye into the river, and that might not be enough.

Angling success is directly linked to salmon density. The thicker the fish in the river, the more caught. With 2 million or more fish in the river and bag limits liberalized, the sportfish catch could easily rise to 400,000 – thus pushing a 2-million-fish sonar count down to a 1.6 million six escapement.

Doubling the 1.2 million would likely require at least 2.8 million sockeye in river. The largest in-river return this decade was 1.7 million in 2015. It led to an escapement barely above the upper limit of the range.

This year’s return appears unlikely to exceed the upper goal of 1.2 million. There are already more than a million fish in-river, but the angler catch has been climbing and the bag limit has been increased to push it still higher.

Meanwhile, there are so few kings in the Kenai some fishing guides have started to call for a ban on king salmon harvest by all fishermen  – sport, dipnet and commercial – until the king run is rebuilt.

Commercial fishermen appear unlikely to go along with that idea.

“CIFF seeks elimination of the Kenai king forecast as a basis to restrict the sockeye fishery,” the lawsuit says. “The incidental catch of kings by the ESSN fishery that targets sockeye is minimal.”

Correction: An early version of this story confused in-river sonar counts of sockeye and sockeye escapement.








22 replies »

  1. The Kenai river was full of kings and reds around the last weekend of july because the commercial fishing was closed. 🙂
    But when they went back to netting it went back to slim pickings! 😡
    I blame mismanagement or corruption! 🤔

  2. Thank you Craig for clearly stating the objectives and greed that exists. The cold hard facts are the Ballard Boys will not be happy until they get the entire resource, and the people of Alaska have to look, and buy fish from under the glass at Safeway. “National Resource”, what a joke it is an Alaskan resource. Do you think people in Washington would tolerate a resource being declared that? NO! We’re lucky if thugs like Roland Maw buy a Louis La’Amour romance novel on their way out of state to enjoy the other 50 weeks of the year on unemployment.

    • Most WA based gillnetters are more likely to be based in Bellingham.
      Ballard is the traditional home of the Seattle schooner fleet.
      Funny thing is I dont think Fishermans terminal (where most of the fleet ties up) is apart of Ballard,its on the other side of Elliot Bay

  3. Well, you can finally say UCIDA has shown its true colors. Rather than be happy with their normal Commercial openers on Mondays and Thursdays, they are now clamoring to fish more emergency openers and to hell with the King run. The only thoughts that run through my head is picturing a 4 year old, standing in a corner with his hands full of toys, yelling, “give me, give me, give me”, to his parents standing in front of him at Christmas time.

  4. This law suit has Roland Maw’s name all over it. Remember him? Just imagine what would have happened if he had been appointed Commissioner or left on the BOF.
    When will UCIDA finally understand that protecting this iconic and ,incidentally “ Alaska State Fish, the Chinook Salmon , is required by the Alaska Constitution. The fish resources are clearly required to be managed on the principal of sustained yield. Period!
    Before the Feds allow unfettered fishing at the expense of the extinction of Cook Inlet Chinook salmon they would likely list the Chinook as a protected or endangered species. The Commercial sector could be simply shut down. And maybe fish traps which are reliably discriminatory between species could be brought back.

  5. Conservation groups need to call it what it is…the “Endangered Species” of the King Salmon.
    Steps should be initiated to get the kings listed as endangered or at least threatened.
    As long as the state of Alaska continues to act as a commercial bank to fisherman and hatcheries, we will never see any real protections from overharvesting in this state.
    The same management policies in place today got us to where we are (closures and record low returns for King Salmon…both on the Kenai and Upper Cook Inlet tributaries).

  6. Sell your boats and bring back the fish traps. We would reduce King mortality to a level not measurable.

  7. The kings, pinks, and coho caught in this fishery are not by-catch but incidental catch. Do most of us wish the number of kings and silvers caught would be less, sure, but they are not by-catch.

    The world record king caught by Les Anderson on May 17, 1985 would have been an early run king, not a late run king.

    I think those filing this suit simply gloss over the conservation part of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, to their detriment.

    Some of us have been calling for no harvest of kings for years, but the guides keep on catching them anyways, sometimes they catch them and release them over and over again until they die.

    • “incidental catch” (ie. “incidental mortality”) is/was the definition of “by-catch,” Steve-O.

      commercial fisherman have engaged in some heavy-duty politics to shift the meaning of the term, but the reality remains that dead, non-targeted species are by-catch. sp for all the ESSNers saying they only want sockeye, kings are by-catch.

      although or a minority of ESSN who believe they are entitled to king salmon, the fish would just be catch.

      now who is “us,” as in “some of us?”

      and how does the C&R mortality compare to the dropout mortality?

      • they like to call it incidental catch because it’s sold on docks or privately at a high price at times even for cash . By catch has bad connotations of fish caught by trawlers. ( the proble real reason kings are disappearing- off shore trawling) Com fish wants as much incidental king catch as possible. Seen it in action. Just more fish for them . What a bunch of short sighted greedy word twisting pirates . Next they will say it’s a world resource and request assistance from ngo welcome to out of state interests 😉 if any lawyers are listening set up a fund to fight for subsistence and sport interests . Put links all over internet, I will donate !

      • From NOAA Fisheries

        What is bycatch?
        Fishermen sometimes catch and discard animals they do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep. This is collectively known as “bycatch.” Bycatch can be fish, but also includes other animals such as dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and seabirds that become hooked or entangled in fishing gear.

        For NOAA Fisheries, bycatch refers to“discarded catch of marine species and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing vessels and gear.”

        I won’t cry if you still want to call catching a pink or a chum or a silver or even a king bycatch in this fishery, but I will probably continue to point out that it’s not bycatch unless you use a very lose definition of the term. I don’t have a monetary dog in the fight, just an interest in being factual and seeing salmon survive for future generations. I think that the commercial guys are over playing their hand and it will not end well for them, but I also think saying they catch too many kings can be done in a way that doesn’t distract from the conversation.

        The “us” I was referring to in the “some of us” regarding shutting down king fishing would be the general public that are interested in seeing salmon survive for future generations, sports fishermen in specific.

        The C&R studies I’ve seen are old and based on a system that doesn’t see anywhere near the pressure the Kenai does and if I recall correctly there was around a 7-8% mortality rate for a fish hooked one time. Maybe there is a new study on the Kenai where kings are repeatedly hooked and released and it shows no mortality, but I doubt that. I would suspect that mortality would rise with each and every C&R event.

      • Steve-O: you didn’t read the comment very well. as i said, there was a lot of politics involved.

        by-catch was long defined this way: “Bycatch is the non-target species that are brought to the deck; it is the opposite of target species.”

        many/most in the scientific community still define it that way. NOAA used to have multiple definitions. there was bycatch, and there were discards. a lot of fishermen didn’t like having the fish they were selling defined as by-catch for obvious political reasons, and so NOAA redefined bycatch as discards.

        that’s the definition you’re now citing.

        i’m sorry, but i hate those sorts of political games. i’m sticking with the original meaning up until it’s clear the majority of the UCI commercial fleet agree that kings are among their “targeted” species, and then i’ll be happy to identify the fish as such.

        that would also clarify a lot of things.

        and if your “us” was meant to identify non-commercial fishermen, i have to agree there appear to be a significant number of sports who would be happy to close down king fishing for a few years. they led a push that caused that to happen in the past. and i think there are guides who would join them in supporting such an idea now.

        i don’t, however, know how many of them that would be willing to forego king fishing opportunities just to let the commercial fishery kill more kings, especially given that it has been steadfastly opposed to gear modifications to protect kings. they were in court today complaining about unfair it is to require them to use shallower nets in hopes of saving kings.

        you are right that the C&R study on the Kenai is old. it was also done at a time when there was a lot more pressure on those fish than there are now. i can tell you from personal observation there were times back in the day when you couldn’t fish certain stretches of the river without banging gunwales with other boats. it was insane.

        and you are actually a little low on mortality. it was 7 percent for females, but 13 percent for males. size of the fish appeared to make no difference:

        there were also fish known to be hooked multiple times: “We confirmed additional hook and release events for 7 fish. One of these fish had tackle in its jaw from a previous event when we caught and tagged it, and the others were caught, released, and reported to us by
        recreational anglers. Three of these multiple recaptures survived to spawn,
        while one each of the remaining fish was a sport harvest, drop-out, set net,
        and tag net fate. A fish that was caught and radio-tagged on 27 July had
        been captured by gill net and spaghetti tagged on 12 July and was carrying
        sport tackle from an interim hooking event. This fish was judged to have
        survived and spawned in the lower Kenai River during mid August. ”

        it would be nice to have a new C&R study. it would also be nice to have a study on dropout mortality from ESSNs and a better handle on unreported harvest. the former has never been studied, and commercial fishermen obviously have a large incentive to not report king harvests these days given the politics.

        where dropout mortality from gillnets has been studied, some troubling numbers have popped up.

        studies of Chinook by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center found incidental net mortality to be more than 4 times greater than incidental hook mortality.

        so it could be that while we’re worrying about C&R mortality in-river, there is a much higher CR mortality going on offshore unnoticed.

        it’s complicated.

      • Steve o I like your line of reasoning and explanation. Perhaps Noa needs to update their definition of bycatch to be more factual/ representive of common situation. Fatalities from gear and throwing back should be called wastage . The reference to bycatch having anything to do with mortality is outdated and inaccurate to what I understand of international fisheries as well as most territorial waters . Thus the creation of term incidental catch? So on high seas and anytime fish are caught it has become more rare to throw back the unintended fish catch . Different gear helps but mostly these fishing vessels sell it as incidental catch / by catch that’s my current understanding. Years ago it was treated a bit different if I remember correctly. Fishermen currently in the industry feel free to correct me .

      • It’s complicated to be sure.

        I will buy off on pinks, coho, chum, and kings being targeted species along with the obvious and more plentiful main target reds. It sounds to me like the commercial guys just signed off on kings being a targeted species with their lawsuit…

        20 or so years ago when I commercial fished for salmon even in Bristol Bay, where the reds outnumber all other salmon species by a lot more than Cook Inlet, we would catch other salmon species and sell them. Same for PWS and Kodiak, where we would sort them from the pinks since we were paid more per pound. A gill net is by definition a targeted means of catching fish, the mesh size targets a specific size fish in a certain body of water. A seine net does the same since salmon are a schooling fish and so you are targeting the school of salmon. In fact arguing that you are not targeting salmon during a very specific time of year, in very specific areas, with very specific gear is not a winning argument.

      • Craig,

        If they left it to you and me I have no doubt we could find an agreement that nobody would be happy with but would be good for the long term viability of the resource.

      • Well, I don’t sign off on silvers being a targeted species by Cook Inlet commfish. We have 4 stocked runs of silvers in UCI – Campbell Creek, Bird Creek, Ship Creek, Eklutna Tail Race. Does hatchery stocking of silvers now support commfish to the exclusion of everyone else who fished the Inlet? CHeer s-

  8. So…. If we’re going to choose the short-term profit of 1 resource over another, can we just let the oil companies develop the entire N Slope to the detriment of the native people and wildlife there? How ’bout Pebble, can we just choose to say that our short-term profit is more important than say all of the Bristol Bay fishermen and Natives? The commercial fishy folks (at least in the CI) are not just shooting themselves in the foot with these ridiculous lawsuits, they’re jumping on environmental landmines. And as for me (a proud sport and personal use guy), I say keep up the good work – I can’t wait to see these CI jokers go the way of the dodo…

  9. The request for a TRO contains so many issues that can be debated, heck the filling of a TRO to wipe out a couple of decades of regulatory development adopted thought the most open public process on the planet is alone cause enough for scrutiny. IMO this is the bottom line question. “Is Alaska going to go back to the days of strong stock management, to the days before the technological tools enabling more mixed stock and weak stock management were available, or is the State going continue to move in the direction of enlightened mixed stock management and embrace the trade-offs and changes this direction will require?” If there is a weak stock that obligates the State to draw a line in the water and make certain that the stock’s spawning goals are achieved it is without a doubt the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon.

    • Good points Kevin. Regrettably politics often dictate policy. The policy exercised during the previous administration and by the BOF under that administration was probably much different from the policies we will see under the current administration and a BOF with different members. Hopefully the path will be now directed by the State’s constitution and not by special interest groups from the commercial sector.

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