No truce

Not even the dreaded coronavirus COVID-19 seems able stop the fish wars that have long roiled the waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

Where some today see a pandemic spreading disease, death and economic hardship, commercial fisherman John McCombs sees opportunity.

McCombs, a member of the board of directors of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Associaton (UCIDA), on Thursday petitioned the Alaska Board of Fisheries to “open commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet to harvest Russian River sockeyes, on May 15th and 2 (12 hour openings Monday and Fridays).

“Emergency adaptive management because of coronavirus.”

His reasoning?

The state’s COVID-19, shelter-in-place lockdown will reduce the sportfishing effort that traditionally harvests the surplus of sockeye salmon returning to the Kenai River’s most fabled, clearwater tributary, and the result will be the sort of dreaded “over-escapement” of spawners the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders of the region’s most powerful commercial fishing organization fear.

Scientists have repeatedly dismissed over-escapement, the idea too many fish escaping the nets or hooks of fishermen to reach the spawning grounds as if nature were unshackled by man pose an environmental threat to the fish themselves.

The most recent scientific dismissal of the idea came just this week with fear growing sockeye harvests worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Bristol Bay could be diminished by the pandemic, but over-escapement remains both the bogeyman and political rallying cry for commercial fishermen in the Inlet.

Cherished waters

A crystal clear stream that surges out of a pair of lakes high in the Kenai Mountains, the Russian supports an early run of sockeye salmon that has not been fished by commercial fishermen for decades.

A historic sport fishery, it long witnessed an average return of fewer than 50,000 sockeye per year with an average angler harvest of less than 15,000 of those. Runs have, however, strengthened in recent years, and more than 100,000 sockeye swarmed the river last year.

Still, any sustainable level of commercial harvest of those early run fish would be but a fraction of a late-run sockeye catch of 1.85 million Upper Cook Inlet sockeye the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts to be caught this summer if the commercial fishing season proceeds as planned.

Across the state, questions have been raised as to the risks of epidemic outbreaks of COVID-19 in fish processing plants. Chile, where plants work year-round to process farmed salmon, has already seen a cluster of COVID-19 cases, and the same problem has struck meat-packing plants in the Lower 48.

Tourism nationwide has taken even bigger hits due to the lockdowns across the country. One of Alaska’s largest tourism operations, Holland America Line, has already announced it will not operate in the state, and another major – Princess Tours – has steeply scaled back.

With state tourism expected to be a whisper of its normal bustle this summer, the fishing industry is one of the few economic engines the state still holds hopes will start clicking.

The Seattle Times Friday reported that Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, the country’s biggest fishing company, will “try to keep COVID-19 out of Trident’s Alaska processing plants by putting all hires through the hotel quarantines and swab testing, then creating closed facilities where employees are not allowed to venture into nearby towns.”

Tough task

Swab testing, according to a draft study by scientists at Oxford University, can be expected to detect about 70 percent of those infected with or carrying COVID-19.

There remains considerable debate as to how many people get sick from COVID-19 and how many, for whatever reason, are merely carriers. The U.S. Navy Wednesday reported about 60 percent of the more than 600 sailors with COVID-19 found among the 4,800 crew of the  U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt were asymptomatic.

“Sweeping testing of the entire crew of the coronavirus-stricken U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt may have revealed a clue about the pandemic: The majority of the positive cases so far are among sailors who are asymptomatic,” Reuters reported Thursday, although the numbers are far from surprising.

Similar testing was done of the passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship after it was hit with COVID-19 in February. Of the 3,711 mostly older people on that ship, 634 contracted COVID-19.

Of those, 52 percent were asymptomatic. Similar rates are showing up in samples around the globe; the data also indicates that while the chances of contracting the disease appear similar for people in their teens to those in their 80s, the chances of serious illness and/or death increase dramatically with age.

Death rates for those 39 years old or under range downward from 0.02 percent, about twice the rate for the common flu. For those 40 and older, the races climb from 0.4 percent to 14.8 percent for those 80 or over.

The fear in remote areas of the state believed to be as yet untouched by the disease is that if it gets there large numbers of elders could die. The indications of large numbers of invisible COVID-19 carriers only add to that fear.

Kenai difference

Connected to Alaska’s largest city by the Sterling and Seward highways, the Kenai Peninsula is different from rural Alaska. Commerce flows freely between the Peninsula and the state’s urban core as do people.

Some Anchorage metro residents have second homes on the Peninsula, as it is commonly called. COVID-19 infections have already popped up in the biggest cities there. The news director for the Kenai radio station revealed she is among the infected.

The state has banned unnecessary travel between Alaska cities, but created an exception for “essential services” that include “persons engaged in subsistence fishing and in the fishing industry.” It stopped short of granting essential status to hunters, anglers and other outdoor reactionists as Minnesota did. 

But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game later sought to clarify the situation by issuing a statement saying hunting and fishing are not fully restricted by the travel prohibition.

“Although travel between communities is prohibited under the issued health mandates,” it said, “the public may still travel to fishing locations.”

Anglers were, however, advised to “totally provision your trip from your community of origin. Don’t plan on buying food, drinks or even fuel (if possible) after you begin your trip and until you return home.

“Practice social distancing while sport or personal use fishing.”

How this would all work once fishing seasons open is unclear. The entrance to the Russian River is about 105 miles south of Anchorage and on the edge of the roadside community of Cooper Landing, which has yet to report a COVID-19 case.

The McCombs petition is premised on the idea that there will either be no sport fishery or – given the expected tourism decline – a fishery so small it won’t come near to catching the expected, harvestable surplus of Russian reds.

The fishery isn’t scheduled to open until June 11.  Thus the Board of Fish will have plenty of time to consider the latest questions of how to balance harvests and escapements.

If Fish and Game biologists believe harvest are likely to fall significantly because of economic chaos being caused by the pandemic, the Board does have various options. Instead of opening the commercial fishery, it could increase daily bag limits to up the catch and help provide fresh fish for regional bar, restaurant, health club and other workers who lost their jobs to the closure of non-essential services.












32 replies »

  1. Craig give John a break. If he said there is a harvestable surplus available then it should not go to waste economically you would find that acceptable. It is a rationale position. Turn it around. If there was no commercial fishery due to the virus sport fish advocates would be asking to harvest more fish. The over escapement position could be justified on future loss of yield if carrying capacity is exceeded. So John not being a biologist may not have it 100% correct but the Board of Fish will be facing more than one of these questions or at least they should if they want to do the best for the State.

  2. Cute. State shut down and UCIDA lines up to “help” the resource by targeting the first run of Russian reds. I’m sure it will be just a one time thing, like the west side setnets working salmon into the MatSu (/sarc). Still, they are predictable, anything to fatten their bottom line a bit while the rest of the state craters.

    Fish farming is in their future whether they like it or not. Cheers –

    • Bryan,
      I was wondering how long till the “criers” were going to last until their next payment request.
      Watching supposedly Republican Senators and Representatives ask for more and more money makes me suspicious of the whole “plannedemic”.
      Why are state representatives in N.H. out protesting with the people while our Republicans “take a knee”?
      You would expect the handout request from the liberal side of Congress but beggers are currently on both sides of the aisle these days.
      End the bullshit lockdown and let people get back to work, socializing and spending money…then we can see what really needs help.

      • I will say it again. This comment is totally irresponsible. First 70-80% of the country is working. Next the best minds around the world say to maintain the present course because if a second wave comes the costs to the public health and economy will be greater. So ignore the radical element in our society

  3. Once again, Medred only dumps on one side in the Cook Inlet Fish Wars. Are folks aware that the industrial commercial halibut charter fleet has also used the cover of the Covid19 crisis to try and influence Federal fishery managers to overturn recent restrictions in their fishery?

    • Yep, the borough mayor of the Kenai Peninsula recently tried to get Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Representative Young to try and get the International regulations for the local commercial charter fleet changed.

    • Fishing for Food: I am sure you will agree then that there is an exciting new third way: Alaskans can now find affordable commercially sold farmed halibut at Costco!!!

      No more tied to just depending upon the commercial fishing “food for the world” fleet to deliver $50 per pound halibut when Canadians, hey, can Deliver at $10 per pound at Costco.

      When “Wild” halibut is forced to compete at $10 per pound from farmed halibut suppliers, it will probably not even be economical for the wild halibut supply chain.

      Too bad “Wild” commercial harvesters don’t know that the “wild” seafood processors spread their bets and hedge against risk, and all the while have been major investors in the farmed halibut supply chain…

      They learned their lesson during the fabled wild vs farmed salmon wars and decided this time to invest in the ground floor.

      Farma comes full circle.

      • Mav,
        Do you have a link by chance?For whatever reasons farmed ‘butts has always been up against a brick wall, unlike salmon.Not sure why, perhaps the slow growth rates.
        Nobody(in alaska) pays $50/lb btw,$6-$10 is wholesale, retail probably standard 2x.
        West coast Commercial hook and line fishing for halibut has been around since the late 1800’s.And while many things have changed, the majority of the Seattle schooner fleet ( and a minority of others)still fishes a gear style who’s history goes back to the middle ages, and european roots.

      • About three years I saw wild Alaska halibut in Costco at $48 per pound, and recently saw farmed halibut from Canada at $10 per pound. I’m I going to believe my lying eyes or not….

  4. “Covid-19 much more widespread than thought, and NO MORE DEADLY THAN FLU, suggests new Stanford study.”

    “A study out of Stanford University tested California residents and found that the Covid-19 infection rate is likely far higher than has been reported, but the virus could also be far less lethal than commonly believed…
    While it may seem like bad news that the virus could be that much more widespread on a global level — which is what the study concludes — it presents several positive factor including the fact that the mortality rate would be much lower than it is now believed, and that many people have symptoms so mild they don’t need to seek medical treatment and recover rather quickly.”

      • Jason,
        Ok,I’ll play along,”accepted “,by whom?
        Where were they a month or two ago.
        Pretty easy to see where you’ve been in the rear view mirror.
        And why would you trust a russian govt sponsored source.
        Surely they have no agenda,purely factual non biased news

      • @Dave Mc by “accepted” I meant reported on by other publications than the one you jumped on as a source of Russian propaganda. I said clearly in my first post on the subject that it wasn’t peer reviewed (yet), but since you were using the Russian fake news angle to discredit the story, I just figured I’d get you sorted out on that.

    • This doesn’t exactly pass the “laugh test.” If COVID-19 was less deadly than the flu, then why aren’t hospitals worldwide constantly overwhelmed by “normal flu” patients? Regardless of “deadliness,” I think what is missing from your point is that COVID-19 is MORE VIRULENT than the “flu,” meaning that it spreads faster than the “normal flu” and therefore results in more acute hospitalizations (unquestionably, look at Italy, Spain, France, and NYC),which in turn reduces survival rates due to overwhelmed hospitals and causes a higher “effective mortality” than the normal flu. The US has 34-60,000 flu deaths PER YEAR and COVID-19 is already at 35,000+ in two months. What’s your point?

      • and the correct answer is: we don’t know.

        a.) COVID-19 has an unusually high kill rate even in hospitals that aren’t overwhelmed.
        b.) COVID-19 might spread at about the rate of the flu, or it might spread way faster:
        “The attack rate or transmissibility (how rapidly the disease spreads) of a virus is indicated by its reproductive number (Ro, pronounced R-nought or r-zero), which represents the average number of people to which a single infected person will transmit the virus.

        “WHO’s estimated (on Jan. 23) Ro to be between 1.4 and 2.5. [13]

        “Other studies have estimated a Ro between 3.6 and 4.0, and between 2.24 to 3.58. [23].

        “Preliminary studies had estimated Ro to be between 1.5 and 3.5. [5][6][7]

        “An outbreak with a reproductive number of below 1 will gradually disappear.

        “For comparison, the Ro for the common flu is 1.3 and for SARS it was 2.0.”

        Transmitability is kind of a stupid issue anyway. The range of the SARS Ro was 2 to as high as 5, and it infected only 8,000. Flu, despite a comparatively low Ro, infects tens of millions of people per year.

        What really matters is the CFR, and COVID-19 has a big one because it starts deadly cytokine storms. Why?

        Answer that one exactly, and you could probably help save lives.

  5. The best way to maintain social distancing and allow people to fish the Russian is obviously to allow snagging, not the snagging that is allowed now, but proper snagging with a treble hook. People could catch their limit, even if it was raised to 12 in a matter of minutes, each cast would produce a fish. Yep, snagging is the solution it keeps people more than 6 feet away and removes those pesky overescaped fish from the river.

  6. While I don’t expect this petition to go anywhere, I do think that if there is a commercial fishery this year in cook inlet, and a dramatic decrease in sport and p/u effort ( both likely scenarios), the commisioner should consider allowing the local managers to step outside of the management plan and the restrictions placed on the drift and setnet fleet in order to allow the managers the flexibility to harvest the available surplus. As Craig states, commercial fishing is one of the few economic engines we have left. Furthermore, if the season does play out in this manner, the fishermen and processors should be strongly encouraged (required?) to donate a portion of the harvest to food banks.

    • Gunner, what makes you think that if there is a likelihood for a commercial season in UCI that there will be likely a decrease in recreational and PU fishing. The Commissioner has made it clear that recreational and PU fishing are approved as critical activities. And any side bars on it are little different from what is normally done anyway in order to prosecute the fisheries.. This is an outdoor activity that might be in high demand, particularly since quarantine will not be required for vast majority of residents. I know quite a few people that are anxious to head to the Peninsula to get fish for their freezers or to just get out of the house and wet a line. With job loses it will be more important than ever for residents to put food on their tables..

      Your premise that there will likely be over escapement if there are fewer recreational fishers is in line with the commercial sector mantra that always uses that argument to get more harvest. But this concept has been increasingly shown to be bogus by many scientists.

      I would not be overly confident that the Commercial fisheries will go as planned. There is still much pressure on the Administration to shut them down. There are lots of out of state people who will be descending on the UCI fisheries whom may be able to spread the virus. All with little effective testing and all required to quarantine for 14 days upon entry into the State. Indeed you might find fewer Comm fishers as a result. That might benefit those who are able to fish and make it unnecessary to ask that the State discriminate against the thousands of Alaskans who want their fair share of this common property resource.

      • Several guides I have talked to say their phone is ringing off the hook with cancellations. Indicates to me less recreational fishing pressure. And I am not at all confident the commercial fishery will go on as planned. Just hopeful that things for both sport and commercial are allowed to continue this summer.

      • Processing capacity will be the biggest restriction for the commercial fleet. The processors will need to put each boat/set net site on a limit, like they have done in Bristol Bay for the last couple years.

        There’s going to be a lot of fish in the rivers, should be good snagging!

      • Gunner, I hope as well that both fisheries are able to take place. My experience about how many are cancelling with guides is a bit different. I have spoken to three well known guide services who told me they are having but very few cancellations. And in some cases the resident bookings are higher than usual. People like John McCombs are not doing the commercial sector any favors by trying to twist the impacts from the “Rona” into opportunity for the few over the many. The apparent greed exhibited by some who view this pandemic as an economic opportunity is regrettable.

    • Cooper Landing residents already have subsitence fishing rights on Russian dipnet above falls. They would be happy to harvest more,, under a state allotment.

  7. Seems safer and safer with each passing day. The lies keep getting bigger and bigger…. shut the politicians down…

    “A key coronavirus model has lowered its estimate of total U.S. deaths in its latest projection of how many will die due to the contagious virus.

    The revision will likely fuel criticism from skeptics that initial projections were overblown

    The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) lowered its projection of total deaths from 68,841 (with an estimate range of 30,188 to 175,965) to just over 60,308 (with an estimate range of 34,063 to 140,381) in an update published Friday.

    But the new numbers will also fuel critics of the lockdown strategy taken by governors and local officials, who say the aggressive shut down of daily life across America was based on projections by models that turned out not to align with reality.

    Protests have broken out across the country in recent days over the lockdown strategy, with demonstrators in states like Minnesota and Michigan turning out to push back against what they see as an overreach from their state governments. They have seen the backing of President Trump who has tweeted out calls to “liberate” those states.

    Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who has become a top voice in those pushing back against the lockdown strategy, has argued that the models have social distancing baked in to them, so that cannot be tagged for the reason why the projections are being lowered.

    “Now we’re in a bad spot because there’s clearly a dangerous political dynamic right now — the economy is in freefall, a lot of people are hurting. If we acknowledge what is clearly happening … the people who made these decisions, I think there’s going to be a lot of anger at them, so they don’t want to acknowledge it, so they say ‘oh it’s the lockdown that saved us,’” former Berenson told Fox News last week.

  8. McCombs once again shows his disdain for recreational fishing. Fortunately his petition will surely go nowhere. He is well known by ADF&G and the BOF for submitting countless meritless proposals at BOF meetings, none of which have ever passed. All of his efforts have had a common thread. Either make it more difficult for a recreational or personal use fisher to harvest this common property resource or provide more opportunity for the commercial sector to harvest it at the expense of the recreational or personal use fishers.

  9. On the flipside, all I have been reading about is how animals are “reclaiming” their territory – alligators in the pools, lions and jaguars in the streets, monkeys along the rooftops, and hords of sockeye returning to the Russian. So, I guess that is all good and disputes the usual screaming crowd. But, I have to ask, what happens come October? I mean, there may not be a vaccine until 2021, flu season will start back-up in October and Covid-19 will be around for years and years to come. What then? Do we shutter all the stores and tape the rivers again? Most will get Covid-19, most will spread it, a few will die. Has the “Shelter in Place” order prevented the spread? Most likely to some degree. Since 99% do not die from the virus has it been worth it? Doubtful. It personally hasn’t slowed me down much. In the begining I didn’t mind being a team player and playing the game. What I am seeing now is 25% Covid and 75% politics. Moving forward I will welcome the “liberation”.

    • would it be worth it if it saved your mother wife daughter. Just how much money are they worth. put a price on it not some generality

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