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.”
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.