Once more, a salmon population that has established itself as the state’s most successful salmon rehabilitation effort is complicating fisheries management for Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists charged with controlling the summer madness in Cook Inlet.
Fisheries managers on the Kenai Peninsula find themselves again juggling how to provide for the harvest of large numbers of sockeye salmon returning to the once-hatchery-boosted, now self-sustaining Kasilof River system without picking off some of the far, far smaller number of Chinook salmon headed for the Kenai River only about 10 miles to the north.
State studies have made it clear it is impossible to catch many of the sockeye without catching a few of the Chinook, the Alaska state fish who most in the north simply call “king.”
Kenai kings once supported a vibrant, sport-fish guiding business on the river, but it has faded over the years as kings have shrunken in both size and number.
There was no angling for the early run of kings which was this year a disaster. The return of only 2,444 was but two-thirds of the minimum spawning goal of 3,900.
Ten to 20,000 of the fish were annually making it back to the Kenai as the new millennium dawned. No one knows why they have since declined or why the second run of kings now returning has followed a similar trend.
Fishing guides who built their businesses on the big kings and anglers who coveted the fish are frustrated and angry about the decline. Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, are frustrated and bitter because their efforts to catch sockeyes with indiscriminate gillnets have been restricted because of a bycatch of kings.
When the gillnet fisheries were last year limited to try to protect an especially weak return of the big fish, commercial fishermen went to court to try to force their fisheries open. State managers, they argued, were trying to put them out of business with “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.”
A Superior Court judge refused to buy the arguments. The state went on managing to protect kings and still missed its minimum spawning goal by more than 3,000 late-run fish.
Meanwhile, more than 1.8 million Kenai sockeye escaped the commercial nets to enter the river – about 550,000 above the maximum in-river goal – and commercial fishermen felt they’d been robbed. The fish would have been worth an average of about $4,500 for each of 1,100 commercial permit holders who regularly fish the Inlet.
This year the guides – having suffered through the non-season for early-run kings and largely idled by the COVID-19 pandemic that has all but killed Alaska tourism – are mad the state is allowing a Kasilof harvest of sockeye sure to kill a few kings in the process.
That the amount of fishing gears has been reduced and shallow nets encouraged to increase the chances that kings will swim under them and escape harvest has not placated many even though a shallow-net harvest, if successful, holds the possibility of setting a precedent for a cleaner way to fish gillnets Inlet-wide.
But this is not the most interesting turn in this twisted story of the problems inherent in managing the Inlet’s swirling, mixed stock of Chinook, sockeye, coho (silver), chum and pink salmon using primitive tools.
Enter the Kasilof
Nobody foresaw the problems the 20-mile long Kasilof River could cause when the state started boosting sockeye returns by stocking Tustumena Lake at the head of the river with millions of young fish in the 1980s.
With state salmon fisheries badly depressed by a combination of overfishing plus a cold and unproductive North Pacific Ocean in the 1970s, Alaskans were all in with hatchery schemes by the 1980s. The belief was fishing interests could one-up nature.
And the Tustumena stocking project has turned out to be one of the most successful programs every started by what was known as Fish and Game’s Division of Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development (FRED).
This despite the forecast death of the system in 2003.
That was the year the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined The Wilderness Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment were right when they argued it was illegal for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to permit a commercial salmon ranch in a federally designated wilderness area.
The court ordered an end to the stocking program which had by then been taken over by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA), the state having concluded the costs of operating commercial hatchery operations outweighed the overall public benefits.
CIAA, one of several regional hatchery organizations set up by the state and allowed to tax commercial fishermen to finance their operations, was in a better financial position to run the operation, but the appeals court refused to buy the idea CIAA was a private, nonprofit company operating solely in the name of the public good.
A federal district court judge in Alaska had endorsed that view, but the appeals court judges observed that the “non-profit activities are funded by the fishing industry and are aimed at providing benefits to that industry. The CIAA’s continued funding and operation is dependent upon the revenues of commercial fishermen, and we have previously recognized that even non-profit entities may engage in commercial activity.
“Surely this fish-stocking program, whose antecedents were a state-run research project, is nothing like building a McDonald’s restaurant or a Wal-Mart store on the shores of Tustumena Lake,” the judges observed. “Nor is it like conducting a commercial fishing operation within designated wilderness, which we have previously proscribed.
“(But) the primary purpose of the enhancement project is to advance commercial interests of Cook Inlet fishermen by swelling the salmon runs from which they will eventually make their catch. The enhancement project is operated by an organization primarily funded by a voluntary self-imposed tax instituted by the Cook Inlet fishing industry on the value of its salmon catch. In the words of the Kenai Refuge Manager,
in a memorandum to the Department of Interior’s Regional Solicitor: The primary purpose of the enhancement activity is to supplement sockeye catches for East Side Cook
Inlet set-net commercial fishermen, and for lower Cook Inlet enhancement projects.”
State officials were outraged by the decision. The Legislature passed a resolution in protest.
“The sockeye salmon enhancement program in Tustumena Lake contributes significantly to the lives and activities of the residents of the Kenai Peninsula and the loss of this project would create substantial hardships for the residents of this area,” it read.
A year later, then-state Attorney General Greg Renkes suggested an appeal of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the “loss of the project would result in a significantly reduced number of sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet and the Kasilof River. The state receives revenues from taxes on sales of fish that are a part of the enhancement project….The state would suffer economic losses if the project does not continue.”
The fish, however, never got the message.
With more fish returning to glacier-fed Tustumena Lake in the late 1980s thanks to stocking efforts, the state upped the spawning escapement goal of 75,000 to 150,000 sockeye to 150,000 to 250,000 per year, and the fish themselves regularly swarmed back in such numbers they overpowered the harvest and boosted the return above the maximum goal.
With the hatchery fish now gone feral, escapement has averaged almost 370,000 sockeye per year this decade, according to Fish and Game data.
Instead of fading away, the once hatchery-dependent Tustumena run has become self-sustaining. It is one of the few FRED programs that proved up on the “rehabilitation” role of the division.
How much this might have benefitted from the enrichment provided by large numbers of salmon carcasses and global warming on the state’s fourth-largest lake is unknown, but studies in Bristol Bay have shown that warming waters can boost size and survival for sockeye salmon rearing in once frigid Alaska lakes.
That’s good for the fish but creates problems for fish managers who’ve long struggled with how to distribute Inlet salmon between competing interests groups and still meet in-river spawning goals for the dozens of streams that drain directly into the Inlet or the dozens upon dozens of streams that feed into the main rivers – the biggest being the Kenai and Susitna – that feed the Inlet.
The task is a little like trying to slice a wedding cake with a chain saw. No matter how one approaches the task, there is no neat and clean way to get the job done.