Saving even a handful of king salmon trumps letting surplus sockeye salmon escape into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers the Alaska Board of Fisheries ruled today.
The decision came in response to a request from commercial setnetters who wanted the Board to overturn the closure of their gillnet fishery earlier ordered by Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang.
With the number of kings, or what much of the world calls Chinooks, returning to the fabled Kenai far below the spawning goal and projections indicating 2021 could see the worst run on record, Vincent-Lang made the decision to place the long-term welfare of the Pacific’s biggest salmon and the Alaska state fish above the financial interests of fishermen.
Their nets, unfortunately, can’t discriminate all that well between the various species of salmon. Depending on the size of net mesh in use, small fish can get through and most of the fish caught will be of a generally similar size, but kings of any size can tangle in the net and drown there.
The large numbers of sockeye escaping the nets in order to protect kings did, however, catch the eye of a couple of business-minded Board members who couldn’t see letting tens of thousands of them getaway to save what might be a statistically insignificant number of the latter.
State harvest data reported only 72 kings caught during the last fishery opening on July 20, and only 11 of those were fish 34 inches or over. But that’s where things get sticky.
A complicated fishery
As Board member Israel Payton pointed out, one data point with a catch of 11 big kings does not indicate much of anything. It could be meaningful; it could be an anomaly.
But the situation is even more complicated than this.
No one knows what the unreported kill of kings, if any, because there is no observer monitoring of the fishery. Setnetters claim there is no unreported harvest, but in the current situation, there is a significant financial incentive for netters to roll dead kings out of their nets to wash away in the tide rather than keep them for sale or even personal use.
And then there is the matter of fish size. For sonar monitoring purposes on the Kenai, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2016 changed its fish counting standards to only target kings over 75 centimeters from the mid-eye to the tail fork (MEF), or fish of approximately 34 inches from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail.
This “is the smallest king salmon that the imaging sonar can reliably distinguish from all sizes of sockeye salmon,” a state study concluded. “Ninety percent of all female Kenai River king salmon are 75 cm MEF or greater in length and more than half of all king salmon of this size are female.”
In a situation such as this year, however, the other 10 percent could be important, and in other Alaska fisheries, the state generally considers fish of 66 cm or longer part of the spawning component.
There is no data on how many of the 61 small kings in the Inlet’s set, gill-net catch were 66 cm or larger.
The complications don’t end there, either.
As Vincent-Lang noted after the video-conferenced Board meeting, the proposal put before the board was for a fishery starting 600 feet offshore. The idea in conducting such a fishery is to get the bottom-anchored gillnets higher in the water so kings, which tend to swim deep, can go under them and avoid being caught.
High and dry
But on certain stages of the tide, the 600-foot fishery discriminates against inshore fishermen whose fishing sites go dry. And there’s more.
At the last Board meeting to hammer out regulations for Upper Cook Inlet, the Board-mediated agreement between sport and commercial interests called for closing the set gillnet fisheries to protect kings when the Kenai sport fishery is closed to protect kings.
The sport fishery closed more than a week ago, and the impact of the weak king run now extends past kings. To further protect those fish, Fish and Game on Sunday banned the use of bait for fishing for coho (silver) salmon in the Kenai and restricted anglers to use of a single-hook only.
The restrictions make it significantly harder to catch coho, but also cut down on the number of incidentally hooked kings and make it easier for those fish to break free if hooked, although anglers are also being advised to “cut leaders or lines to avoid stressing incidentally hooked king salmon.”
Vincent-Lang told the Board the 11 kings the set gillnetters were talking about is about the number of kings that would have been expected to die as the result of being hooked if a catch-and-release sport fishery had continued on the Kenai through the regularly scheduled July 31 end of the season.
That closure harmed fishing guides and sport-fish-related businesses on the Kenai Peninsula in much the same way the set-net closure hit commercial fishermen.
Changing the rules now would essentially elevate one interest group to a status above other interest groups.
“This is an allocative decision,” said Board member John Jensen from Petersburg. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Jensen was one of four members to vote against overriding Vincent-Lang’s decision. He and others suggested it might be worth revisiting management plans for the Inlet in the future to take advantage of bycatch reductions in the 600-foot fishery if there prove to be significant bycatch reductions. But cautioned against action “in the heat of the battle (when) emotions run high.”
Historically in mixed-stock fisheries like those of the Kenai, weak salmon runs have suffered and sometimes been endangered by fishery managers bowing to pressures to maximize the harvest of strong stocks.
“We don’t want to miss the goal three or four years in turn,” Jensen said.
Board members John Wood from Wasilla, who has long been considered an advocate for sport and personal-use fishermen, and Gerad Godfrey from Eagle River were the two votes in favor of opening the set gillnet fishery.
Setnetters ironically lacked for more data with which to buttress arguments for the 600-foot fishery because they have for decades fought that and other fishery changes aimed at reducing their bycatch of kings.
Some of them and their advocates have argued that the kings aren’t bycatch at all and that setnetters are entitled to catch them because historically they did so.
That sort of thinking has come back to bite them in the ass in a year when conservation concerns have made the kings bycatch by anyone’s definition.
If setnetters had come up with a workable scheme to use to reduce the king bycatch to near zero, they’d now be fishing given a strong run of sockeye to the Kasilof River and a decent return to the Kenai.
As of today, the Kenai sonar count is over 1 million, which meets the escapement goal. The state last week revised its forecast of the total return downward from a preseason forecast of 2.33 million to 2.1 million, but given the restrictions on the commercial fishery, the in-river return could still exceed the sustainable escapement goal of 1.3 million.
Only time will tell there.
The sonar is downstream from much of the in-river, rod-and-reel fishery and thus doesn’t count removals of salmon caught in upriver sport fisheries. Vincent-Lang told the Board his agency still doesn’t have enough sport fish data available from last year to determine if the 1.7 million fish that made it past the sonar in 2020 topped the upper bound of 1.3 million spawners.
The state is now also weighing increasing the sockeye limit for anglers on the Kenai to catch some of this year’s surplus. It has already boosted the Kasilof limit.
The latter river is near a sonar count of 430,000 sockeye, which puts it 60,000 over the upper bound of the optimum escapement goal. It is looking as if the Kasilof could top the nearly 550,000 of last year, which has commercial fishermen screaming about the damage done by “over-escapement” though such damage is both rare and self-repairing.
Still, recognizing the surplus, the state both increased the sport fish limit for the Kasilof from three to six fish per day with 12 in possession and extended the personal-use dipnetting area to try to harvest some of the extra sockeye flooding into the river.
The Kasilof dipnet fishery is open through the end of the day Saturday, but fishing remains limited to Alaska-residents-only with a sport fishing license and the proper permit, which is free.