After years of Alaska politicians complaining about “federal overreach” in the 49th state, one legislator is now arguing that it is vital in Cook Inlet, the waterway that cuts into the heart of the state’s urban core.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai, contends the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) is incapable of managing salmon fisheries solely in the state waters of the Inlet and wants the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) to open a federal fishery in the waters south and west of Kalgin Island.
Unless that happens to continue to allow commercial salmon gillnetters to operate largely out-of-sight far out in the Inlet in late June and early July, he argues in a letter to the Council, “more openings would be required later in the season in order for ADF&G to manage large quantities of returning fish…Inevitably this will result in over-escapement and eventually smaller returns, directly and negatively impacting the quality and quantities of salmon available for other sport, personal-use of and subsistence user groups.”
“Over-escapement” is the specter that haunts the Inlet’s commercial fishermen. In their nightmares, if one salmon in excess of the number state fisheries biologists consider optimal for spawning escapes commercial nets, the fish will crowd each other off the spawning beds, starve to death in the mad competition for food as fry or smolts, or otherwise interact to reduce to a trickle the number of adult salmon returning in future years.
Fisheries scientists agree on the theory of over-escapement, but caution that it’s not nearly as simple as commercial fishermen would like to believe.
Two top salmon scientists earlier this year went so far as to label the term as it is often bandied about in Alaska “a myth.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic just beginning in April, there were fears the Bristol Bay salmon fishery – the world’s largest producer of wild sockeyes – might be shut down, allowing tens of millions of the fish to escape into the rivers that feed the Bay.
The possibility drove the mother of all fears of over-escapement. And that panic drove University of Washington ecologist Daniel Schindler, who has studied salmon in the Bay for decades, and colleague Curry Cunningham to pen a commentary for National Fisherman magazine warning “these discussions have generated widespread concern about ‘over-escapement’…severely depressing future salmon production.
“The myth of over-escapement is an unnecessary distraction and should be dropped from these discussions. The fish will be just fine no matter what the outcome is for the 2020 season.”
A state study of the issue in 2007 found over-escapement common in many Alaska streams and reported that in three of 40 streams studied biologists did find declines in future returns after “consecutive over-escapements that were greater than twice the upper bound of the escapement goal range.”
Escapement is a technical term for the number of fish that reach their spawning grounds by escaping the nets of fishermen. Escapements twice the size of the upper ends of the range are extremely rare in the streams and rivers draining into Cook Inlet, although the Kenai River did come close in 1987 and again in 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
When small quantities of oil made their way into the Inlet, fishing was restricted and as a result almost 2.3 million sockeye made it into the Kenai that year, about 500,000 more than in 1987.
The Kenai River is now at the heart of a dispute between the state and the federal government over the management of salmon in the Inlet, where the state managed the fish for decades.
That changed when the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), a commercial fishing group that is the region’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, sued the U.S. Department of Commerce arguing the National Marines Fisheries Service, a Commerce agency, was ignoring the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.
The act regulates fishing in what is called the U.S. “Exclusive Economic Zone” from three to 200 miles off the coast, and it stipulates that all fisheries conducted in the EEZ must be prosecuted per the terms of a Council-approved management plan.
There was no such plan in place for the Inlet. A federal judge ruled that there should be and told the Council to write one. UCIDA, in turn, has tried to leverage that plan into more than just a fishery to allow drift gillnets to catch a few salmon in the center of the Inlet.
UCIDA’s attorney in May told a federal judge that federal management should exstend to not just the federal waters in the Inlet the streams and rivers that drain into the Inlet to force the state to start managing for “maximum sustained yield (MSY).”
MSY is to the sweet dreams of commercial fishermen what over-escapement is to their nightmares.
If only the state would manage for MSY, a Kenai gillnetter suggested to the state Board of Fisheries in January, “there’s no reason not for 100,000 kings to come back to the Kenai River” every year along with 4 million to 6 million sockeye.
Kings, or Chinook as much of the rest of the world calls them, are the largest of the Pacific salmon, and the fish most prized by anglers. The Kenai kings used to support a guide industry worth about $100 million per year. It is now largely gone.
The Kenai hasn’t seen a return of anything close to 100,000 kings in a decade, and the problem appears to have nothing do with over-escapement or lack of management for MSY.
A peer-reviewed study published in Fish and Fisheries in September pointed to what appears to be a largely Pacific-wide decline that has more than halved the number of Chinook in the sea.
“The abundance of salmon in the North Pacific has reached record levels,” researcher David Welch and his colleagues wrote. “However, most of the increase is in the two lowest valued species (pinks and chums) in far northern regions, at least in part due to ocean ranching.
“In contrast, essentially all west coast North American Chinook populations including Alaska are now performing poorly with dramatically reduced productivity.”
There have been suggestions, albeit hard to prove, that the big kings may be losing out to the swarms of pinks and chums in the ocean competition for food.
An international team of scientists earlier this year argued the same thing appears to be happening to sockeye, and they singled out pink runs boosted by hatchery production as a key issue.
“From 2005 to 2015, the approximately 82 million adult pink salmon produced annually from hatcheries were estimated to have reduced the productivity of southern sockeye salmon by 15 percent on average,” they wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published by the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.
Commercial fishermen – who fund non-profit Alaska hatcheries that help fill their nets with free-ranged hatchery fish – have shown little interest in the issue of inter-species competition between salmon and instead focused on MSY as the holy grail of a future salmon bounty despite disputes within fisheries management as to the value of the standard.
All of this in total is what led state Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang to suggest to the Council it simply get rid of a management headache by closing the federal waters of the Inlet to commercial harvest and letting the state take care of catching the necessary number of fish in state waters.
Micciche said such an action would be a disservice to his constituents.
“My primary jobs responsibility is to listen to my constituents,” he wrote the Council. “I have not heard from a single individual supporting the closure of the EEZ….”
Micciche is the former manager of the Conoco-Phillips liquified natural gas (LNG) plant on the Kenai Peninsula. Like some other well-off residents of the region, he also owns a Cook Inlet drift gillnet permit.
The records of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC) indicate he obtained it in 1994. Though given to experienced commercial fishermen after the passage of the state’s so-called “limited entry” law in the early 1970s, the permits have been freely bought and sold ever since.
Worth $65,000 on average in ’94, according to the CFEC, their value has now declined to $23,100 as Inlet salmon harvests have declined and fish prices in general have fallen in a market today dominated by farmed salmon.
But if the analysis provided by Micciche in his letter to the Council is to be believed, closing the federal waters in the Inlet could render his permit worthless.
The closure proposal, “Alternative 4, will have dramatic negative consequences for the entire commercial fishing industry in Cook Inlet,” he wrote, “a commercial fishery which has been prosecuted for a well over a century. Generations of Peninsula family have lived a life of fishing these waters, providing a high-quality protein to the nation and the world. Young crew members have earned money for college while being installed with a work ethic which they carry with them for life. Altnerative 4 will likely put an end to commercial salmon fishing in Cook Inlet, and therefore, an Alaska way of life.”
Worse, he argued, it would destroy a delicate compromise between the many Alaskas competing for Inlet salmon.
“User groups in the Cook Inlet area have long struggled to find a balance between, sport, commercial, personal use and subsistence user groups,” he wrote. “Alternative 4 drives a stake through the heart of one user group causing any chance of balance to be eliminated and 40 years of successful fisheries management to erupt into chaos.”
The “balance” to which Micciche refers was overseen by the state Board of Fisheries. UCIDA filed suit because it didn’t like the Board’s version of balance.
The closure of the federal waters would not end commercial fishing in the Inlet. There is still plenty of state water in the 200-mile long Inlet. Most of the Inlet from Ninilchik north and east to Anchorage is state water.
And the closure of the EEZ would have no effect on the 740 commercial fishermen who use set gillnets to harvest salmon. The waters beyond the beaches worked by setnetters are home to about 570 fishermen who hold Cook Inlet drift permits. Exactly how many of them live on the Kenai Peninsula is unclear.
The Peninsula is now home to about 60,000 people, according to the U.S. Census. Food security for thousands of them, if not tens of thousands of them, depends in part on salmon caught with dipnets or rod and reel.
UCIDA’s main complaint with Board of Fisheries management was that as the state grew the board was ever so slowly but steadily shifting some of the 90 perent of the salmon gillnetters once harvested to dipnetters and anglers – many of them visitors to the Kenai from Anchorage or Outside.
Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a value judgment.
“Politics and doing the right thing are often at odds,” Micciche wrote the Council. “I respectfully request that in this case the right thing carries the day. Supporting Alternative 4 is not the right thing to do, and I believe in your hearts most of you know that to be the case.”
Seven of the 15 members of the Council represent public agencies, either federal or in the state’s of Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Of the other eight, all but one have direct connectons to the commercial fishng business.