Fish more

Reading through the 260-page, 9/16th-inch thick Alaska Board of Fisheries Proposal Book published by the state, it is clear the one thing Cook Inlet commercial fishermen want most is more fishing time.


Not only would it be good for them, they argue, it would also be good for the resource.

As the commercial-fisherman dominated Central (Kenai) Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee argued, “the commercial fisheries is (sic) the only indicator and calibration of the test boat of the run strength and salmon species on a real time basis.

“Without regular 12-hour fishing periods, the Department (of Fish and Game) is basically managing in the blind as to the abundance.”

The committee asked for a guarantee of two, 12-hour fishing periods from the opening of the season on the third Monday in June through roughly the middle of August. 

The Board should give them that and more – say maybe an opening every other day through the season but with some key caveats:

Drift gillnetters will be limited to a net 180 feet (30 fathoms) in length and 29 meshes deep, and set gillnetters will be limited to a net 60 feet in length (10 fathoms) and 29 meshes deep.

Counting carcasses

Present regulations allow driftnets of 150 fathoms and 45 meshes, and setnets of 35 fathoms and 45 meshes except when special regulations are put in place to try to protect Chinook salmon (the big kings) by going to shallower mesh.

Commercial fishermen complain mightly about how the on-again, off-again 29-mesh requirement forces them to buy two sizes of nets. Standardizing the net depth at 29-mesh would solve that problem and potentially create an economy of scale that might reduce net prices slightly for all of them.

Commercial fishermen are likely to complain angrily about what shorter, shallower nets do to their fishing efficiency, but if they want more fishing time that’s the price to be paid because salmon management isn’t about how many hours or days per week anybody fishes.

All that matters is how many fish you kill.

Whether you kill 600 salmon in a  12-hour period with 150 fathoms of net or 600  salmon in five, 12-hour periods with 30 fathoms of net, you’ve still reduced by 600 the number of fish getting into the river to be caught in in-river fisheries or to spawn.

And after decades of whining about how commercial fishing in Cook Inlet is more a lifestyle than a business, commercial fishermen should be happy to spend more time instead of less engaging in that lifestyle even if they aren’t catching as many fish on a daily basis.

The numbers

How this sort of scheme would work out on an economic basis is impossible to predict, but it might actually offer advantages.

To start with, a premium is paid by restaurants for fresh-caught salmon. An every-other day-fishery in the Inlet would allow the Kenai to service the restaurant market for a significant part of the summer.

Lower daily production would, or should, also translate into higher quality fish. It is easier to kill, bleed and cool a small number of fish than a large number of fish. And quality is important in high-end markets.

The word in the international salmon market these days is that the high-volume of sockeye salmon caught during unusually hot weather in Bristol Bay last summer actually has a lot of buyers looking for Russian sockeye, which are now considered of higher quality because of better handling, while Alaska fish chill in freezers.

More is not always better. The same for bigger.

Smaller daily harvests in the Inlet would make smaller, more fuel-efficient boats more attractive and eliminate the need for crew, which immediately cuts operating costs. The words of longtime Alaska fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp echo here:

“Alaska salmon harvesting technologies haven’t changed since limited entry legislation established gear types 40-plus years ago. No one thinks about finding a better way to catch Bristol Bay wild salmon.”

Or a better way to catch any Alaska salmon.

Kenai commercial fishermen have regularly and loudly complained about two, specific Kenai River problems for a couple decades – the efficiency of the personal-use (PU) dipnet fishery and the “over escapement” (too many spawners) in the Kenai.

And yet, none of them have ever suggested a new fishery in the Kenai.


The river is closed to PU dipnetting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. There is no reason the state couldn’t create a new commercial, dipnet fishery to operate in-river overnight and selectively harvest sockeye when sockeye escapement goals are in danger of being exceeded.

Such a fishery could help fix the problem of the management tendency to try to front-load the harvest of Kenai sockeye in the Inlet in hopes of being able to limit commercial fishing later in the run to minimize the by-catch of highly valued kings in commercial gillnet fisheries.

The problem with this approach is that it diminishes the number of sockeye in-river early and thus compresses the length of that season when tourists swarm the Kenai to catch salmon and leave cash behind in hotels, bars, restaurants, brewpubs, supermarkets, fast-food joints and elsewhere.

And who knows – if the state created a new, commercial dipnet fishery in the river to selectively harvest surplus sockeye and avoid the king bycatch problem, some commercial fishermen might be willing to trade in their set or drift gillnet permits for a commercial dipnet permit.

If not, the state could make the dipnet permits available on an annual basis for a percentage of the earnings or put them on five- or 10-year leases to maximize the public return on a common-property resource.

Critics of limited entry have long argued that should have been the system imposed after Alaskans voted to amend the constitution to help out commercial fishermen. Instead, the state created the limited-entry system and gave commercial fishermen permits they were then free to buy and sell.

The response to this windfall from commercial fishermen has become a general belief that their fellows Alaskans ceded them the resource. But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is the state now seems locked into a limited entry system created almost 50 years ago that ignored a reality that applies to all life on earth: Evolve or die.














11 replies »

  1. Steve-O-
    Regarding that commercial King harvest for UCI, isn’t that a self reported number? I think it is and don’t buy it.

    • I’m not sure if it’s self reported or not, I never commercial fished in the Inlet. I do know there is a self reporting procedure for fish that isn’t sold but kept as a home pack. There are also fines for not reporting home packs as it is illegal, just like not reporting kings caught in the sport fishery. I don’t remember seeing anything in police reports for that on the commercial side usually it is unlicensed crew, unlike on the sport side where the violations go from being unlicensed to keeping more than is allowed to fishing out of season to using illegal gear and using legal gear illegally

      Point is there is plenty of blame to go around, the sooner everyone accepts that we are all fighting over a limited resource the sooner we can address the issues. Right now, and for far too many years the major issue has been the king returns are low. We should all be trying to get as many kings in the rivers as we can and we shouldn’t be catching or keeping them in the salt or in the fresh. We have the technology and the ability to reduce the numbers of kings caught in both places but people who play the blame the other guy game aren’t open to changing their ways to the detriment of the king salmon and in the long run themselves.

  2. Allocation of fish harvest in Alaska is political, plan and simple.

    It didn’t take long after statehood for the Alaska Legislature to decide they couldn’t take the time to allocation fish harvest so they passed the baton to a citizens board, the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF). Currently 8 Alaskans appointed by Alaska’s governors and confirmed by a majority of Alaska Legislators determine who gets to harvest the surplus of fish not need to comply with the sustained yield principle enshrined in Alaska’s State Constitution, Article 8, Section 4.

    If Alaskans want more salmon to harvest inriver for their personal use all they need is for anyone to propose it and 4 members of the BOF to vote yes. How can Alaskans who want to catch their own salmon get 4 yes votes out of 7 board members to put more salmon in the river for them to catch? Simple, get a governor elected who will appoint inriver personal use advocate to the board and elect members of the Alaska House of Representatives and Senate who will confirm them.

    3 members of the BOF are up for re-appointment in 2020. If inriver fish gathers don’t like the way they vote next week on proposal to increase the opportunity to harvest inriver for personal use they can apply “political pressure” on the Governor and AK Legislators to replace them.

    It’s that simple, the law allows it.

    • Well Rod,
      It is a lot like the $6,700 PFD that the Governor promised residents during his campaign.
      You can push and prod the issue as much as you like, but the bureaucrats (of which the fish board members surely are) will follow the lead of industry lobbyists and career state employees (like ADF&G).
      I heard a good comment by Ed Snowden the other day…he said” Want to know who the deep state is in America, well it is the career government folks”.

  3. Craig, can you inform us of the reported bycatch of Kings last year? In Cook Inlet specifically?

    • Chris,

      The commercial catch of kings in UCI according to F&G is as follows:

      “The 2019 UCI commercial harvest of all king salmon stocks was 3,148 fish, which was 58% less than the previous 10-year (2009–2018) average annual harvest of 7,408 fish (Table 1). Of this total, the ESSN fishery harvested 2,245 king salmon, or 71% of the harvest. The 2,245 king salmon harvested in the ESSN fishery included an estimated 1,024, or 46% that were large king salmon, and a total of 613, or 27% that were large Kenai River late-run origin fish. The drift gillnet fishery harvested 178 king salmon of all sizes and all stocks.”

      • Thanks Steve-O. Was there any sport harvest at all in the Kenai River?. Did any personal use Kasilof setnets or Kenai ?dippnetters report a King harvest?

      • Chris,

        Here is a link to the sports fishing harvest estimates for 2018 for all freshwater of the Kenai Peninsula bounded on the north by Turnagain Arm including the Seattle and Sixmile Creek drainages; on the west by Cook Inlet; on the east by the Placer River drainage, and the waters flowing into the Gulf of Alaska west of Gore Point. Once again it doesn’t look like they’ve published the numbers for 2019 yet

        For 2018 they estimate 4,329 freshwater kings just for the area noted above. The Anchorage area, Northern Cook Inlet, and Western Cook Inlet are in different survey areas.

        The ADFG website is somewhat cumbersome to navigate, but it has a ton of information that is extremely useful for those who pursue fish and game in this state.

  4. This Board will take some steps that accomplish at least two things. 1) To move more fish to the Anchorage / Valley streams and rivers. And (2), to increase the escapement goals in the Kenai River for Sockeye and Chinook. There should also be an attempt to reduce the Chinook mortality caused by drop outs from the commercial set net fishers. For decades commercial set net fishers have not had to account for the thousands of Chinook that fall out of their Sockeye Nets never to be seen or accounted for. Additionally since every Chinook reported as caught by the set netters is cause for concern because of the low escapement in the rivers, there has been incentive to simply not report the fish as being caught. And with 60 miles of beach from which more than a thousand long set nets are deployed, enforcement by ADF&G is almost impossible. It is time for that practice to be stopped.
    With the new members on the Board and a Commissioner who does not come from the commercial sector and who understands the economics as well as the biology, the people of Alaska will end up with a fair opportunity to
    access this common property resource. Finally!

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