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.
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.
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.