Commercial fishermen in Alaska’s Cook Inlet are accusing the state of a decades-long conspiracy to drive them out of business by allowing too many salmon to enter the Kenai River.
The large number of sockeye salmon the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) now allows to escape commercial nets and enter the Kenai River overstuffs the system; competition between young fish subsequently reduces survival; and as a result, the return per spawner in future years declines. This lower return per spawner in turn lowers the river’s productive “yield,” the number of fish available to be caught in the commercial fishery.
“It would appear that ADF&G is deliberately trying to reduce yield in the commercial fishery,” the 30-page document prepared by the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) says.
“They are using incorrect escapement goals and prescriptive management plans that limit in-season adaptive management and the result is diminished returns and continued lost yield,” the graph- and chart-filled presentation says. “In other words, the state is managing the Cook Inlet salmon fishery with the objective of putting the commercial fishing industry out of business.”
UCIDA is the most powerful fishing lobby in the Cook Inlet region. It was formed, its web page says, “in 1980 to represent the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. UCIDA’s purpose is to enhance and perpetuate the interests of this valuable commercial salmon fishing industry.”
For decades before and after its incorporation, commercial fishermen largely dictated Inlet management policy to the regulation-setting Alaska Board of Fisheries. When the Board wrote an Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan in 1978, it made commercial harvest a management priority from June 25 to Aug. 15.
The dates coincide with the return of the bulk of high-value sockeye salmon. All five species of Pacific salmon return to the Inlet that laps at the doorstep of the state’s largest city, but the money is in those silver-bright, ocean sockeye that turn a bright red once they settle onto their freshwater spawning grounds.
Sockeye accounted for 85 percent of the value of the $23 million Inlet salmon harvest last year, according to Fish and Game data. More pink salmon than sockeye were harvested, but the pink catch weighed only about 60 percent of the sockeye catch and brought a meager 34 cents per pound at the dock compared to $1.85 a pound for sockeye.
Successful state management
Under the watchful eye of ADF&G managers in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Kenai sockeye escapements were steadily eased upward and returns increased steadily. As they did, harvests grew from 2.3 million in 1978 to three years of more than 8.3 million in the 1980s.
Along the way, Kenai sockeye became the tail shaking the management dog in the Inlet. Indiscriminate gillnets set to haul in plentiful Kenai sockeye also caught far less plentiful Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon bound not only for the Kenai but for streams all around the Inlet.
Additional management plans had to be written to try prevent the gillnetting of plentiful sockeye from leading to the overharvest of Susitna River coho, Kenai coho and world-famous Kenai king salmon. The 97-pound, 4-ounce world-record king was pulled from the Kenai in 1985.
Most of the fishery plans drafted to protect fish like it and others took a bite out of the commercial harvest, but commercial fishermen, in general, did well for decades.
Commercial harvests that averaged 1.2 million sockeye per year in the 1960s and 1970s grew to 4.4 million per year in the 1980s, shrunk back a little to 3.8 million in the 1990s, and then began a slide that saw the catch drop to 3 million in the 2000s.
It has averaged about 2.5 million this decade, a significant decline from the heady days of the 1980s but more than double the catches of the ’60s and ’70s.
Why the catch has declined is unclear despite the UCIDA claim the problem is too many fish in-river. Sockeye catches in Bristol Bay on the far western coast of Alaska have been setting records in the 2010s, but most sockeye stocks to the east of there – including those of Cook Inlet – have been trending downward.
Some have blamed competition for food with smaller, faster-growing pink salmon in the Gulf of Alaska. Most fisheries biologists agree with scientists Greg Ruggerone from Seattle and James Irvine from British Columbia, Canada who authored a study concluding there are now more salmon in the Pacific Ocean than at any time in recorded history.
Alaska statewide harvests have generally served to underline that conclusion. Average decadal catches have increased for every decade since the 1970s, but the numbers have been driven by those big sockeye returns to Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea and huge harvests of pinks around the Gulf.
Though UCIDA believes the problems with reduced returns to the Kenai center on what is happening in the river, Canadian scientists point to issues at sea.
A study now in peer review claims to have “found that marine survival collapsed over the past half-century by a factor of at least four-to-five fold to similarly low levels for most regions of the West Coast. The size of the decline is too large to be compensated by freshwater habitat remediation or cessation of harvest, and too large-scale to be attributable to specific anthropogenic (human) impacts such as dams in the Columbia River or salmon farming in British Columbia.”
Written by a team from Kintama Research Service in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, the study makes the argument that what happens in the ocean – where salmon spend most of their lives – is more important than what happens in freshwater where they spawn, die and leave young that stay for a relatively short time.
Most Kenai sockeye spend a year in freshwater and then two to three years at sea although there are a few that stay in-river for two years before going to sea for three. Very little is known about what happens to these fish once they hit the ocean other than that massive numbers die and are never seen again.
Thus the big arguments over “returns per spawner” which have, in the case of the Kenai, varied from 1.23 in 2012 to 12.69 in 1982. UCIDA argues the numbers look best when spawning is limited to 600,000 to 800,000 fish in-river, but even in that case the variability in returns per spawner is huge, ranging from a low of 1.90 to that high of 12.69.
Money, money, money
What is clear from the data is that in years when large numbers of sockeye escape into the river, commercial fishermen lose money. UCIDA considers this waste.
“The in-river (Kenai) sport fishery does not have the capacity to harvest…excess sockeye,” the letter says. “So the result is an immediate loss of 500,000 to a million sockeye that could be harvest by commercial fishermen. We cannot afford to waste these 500,000 or more sockeye that are surplus to spawning needs. Five hundred thousand sockeye, or more equates to a minimum of 3 million pounds of salmon being wasted annually.”
The letter couches its demand for a federal takeover to eliminate waste in the context of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth issued on May 7.
“This order mandates that regional fishery management councils develop a prioritized list of actions to reduce burdens on and to increase production from sustainable fisheries,” the letter says. “The prioritized list must be produced within 180 days, and the changes must be proposed within one year.
“The information contained in our letter describes what is needed to increase production rapidly from the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, meet the requirements of the MSA (Magnuson-Stevens Act) and meet the requirements of the executive order.”
Much of what follows is a detailed treatise on maximum-sustained-yield (MSY) management of fisheries. An old school standard, MSY has come under increasing fire in recent years.
A variety of studies have pointed out that it is unrealistic to try to obtain MSY in complicated mixed-stock fisheries – as in Cook Inlet – because trying to manage for the MSY of one stock too easily results in the overharvest of another stock.
That problem has led to calls for maximum economic yield (MEY) or maximum sustained recruitment (MSR), which seeks to produce the optimum number of small fish.
MSR puts more fish in the river and, from an ecological standpoint, better feeds the environment. Everything from the bears in the woods to the rainbow trout in the river to the forest itself benefits from more fish in the river although all have historically played second fiddle to the idea of manipulating salmon runs for maximum human profit.
That is why UCIDA thinks the feds need to step in to do now. The organization argues Kenai sockeye, which feed in federal waters and the open ocean and then pass through federal waters on their way back to the river, should be managed to a strict MSY standard as stipulated in the Magnuson-Stevens Act governing federal fisheries.
UCIDA rejects state efforts to protect the weaker stocks in mixed-stock fisheries as schemes “used by the BOF (Board of Fisheries) and ADF&G as justifications for restricting commercial fishing on all stocks.”
The letter concedes that the “idea that complex physical or biological systems can be exactly and reliably described by a few mathematical formulas is absurd,” but still demands that the federal fisheries council set lower and narrower escapement goals for the Kenai based on MSY modeling.
The letter to the council makes no mention of Kenai subsistence, sport or personal-use fisheries for sockeye, although there is no question that harvest in those fisheries could be increased to help prevent waste if that is truly a problem.
For decades, the Kenai River sport fishery has been arbitrarily restricted to an angling limit of but three sockeye per day, and anglers have been required to release immediately and unharmed any sockeye salmon hooked anywhere but in the mouth.
Commercial fishermen have backed those sport fish regulations, and regularly decried a lack of state enforcement of regulations against “snagging” sockeye by catching them anywhere but the mouth.
Historically, according to Fish and Game anthropologist Jim Fall, snagging was the way in which most salmon were harvested in-river when the Kenai Peninsula population started to boom after World War II.
“Snagging with a rod and reel was one of the most efficient methods for people unfamiliar with riverine net fishing,” he wrote. “Homesteaders found snagging to be the most economical and efficient legal method, and it worked well in the fast-flowing waters of many rivers and streams where nets would be swept away or caught on snags.”
Snagging only increased after in-river net fishing was banned in favor of limiting nets to the marine waters where commercial fisheries operated. But an odd convergence of angling and commercial fishing interests eventually brought snagging to an end.
Commercial fishermen wanted in-river competitors for salmon to catch fewer of them. And a vocal group of anglers, inspired by purist fly fishermen like Lee Wolff and others who saw catch-and-release fishing as a new conservation tool, judged snagging cruel, unethical and unfair.
“Snagging was restricted to the head in 1969,” Fall wrote. “By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal. This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish for home use.”
No data is kept on how many Kenai sockeye are “foul-hooked” by anglers every summer now only to be hauled to shore and released, but observations of some of the more popular Kenai holes would indicate that there are at least as many fish caught and released on any given day as there are fish caught and kept.