No fishing

Cook Inlet set netters at work/KPFMA photo

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.

It was not a simple or easy decision. The fishermen claimed they were losing 3,000 to as many 10,000 sockeye – worth somewhere close to $100,000 – for every 34-inch or larger king that went upriver.

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.

But the river was closed to all king salmon fishing on July 21.

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.

The Kenai missed its late-run king salmon goal for spawners by more than 3,000 fish both last year and in 2019.

“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.



22 replies »

  1. Craig: Thank you for your reasonable articles.
    It’s amazing how the article talked about a million sockeye run on the Kenai. The Susitna river a river multiple times larger has a run of 250,000 on the best year. The Susitna
    Coho run is Down to 45,000 fish. Our chum run is down from nearly 5,000,000 to maybe 500,000 . But it’s the northern district so catch them all before they get away .
    I’ve been watching this process for over 30 years . It’s a absolute failure. The only winners in our eyes are commercial fishing.
    Many of the locals business have just been put out of business. No fish no tourists, no locals fishing no commerce.
    It’s disappointing listening to both groups wine about
    The lack of fish .
    Finally a fish board trying to represent the sport side of
    First time in 30 years .

  2. Alaskans first!
    I know that with your bias that the guided and unguided sport fishery that TARGETS large chinook is blameless. We all have our own drum to beat. I am a drifter, and the ammount of largekings I have caught through the last 40 years are a drop in the hat. 0 kings this year, not even a jack. That being said, we all share the blame, but not according to you.

    • Gunner, please re read my post. I never said the in river harvesters were blameless. In fact I recommended that all in river harvest be shut down as well as the set net fishery. And I fully understand that the drift fishery does not harvest but a few numbers of Chinook. And I did not recommend it be shut down. That would be stupid. They need to kill lots of Sockeye with the help of all in river fishers.

  3. The Kenai will be close to 3 million escapement. This year. Drifter’s can’t stop the beach running sockeye. Setnetter’s should be fishing.

    • To Karl Liedes:
      I respectfully disagree. Double the opportunity of the dip net fishery and double or more the sockeye limit on anglers and allow a few more openings for the drift fleet and the Dept can achieve or come close to the goals. Or simply increase the goals. They were arbitrarily set to achieve commercial harvest ( translation: for the economic benefit of commercial fishers ) not for biological reasons. The eco system will benefit and except for one out liar year sockeye have always reproduced at better than 1:1. So what’s the harm to the resource. And the goal mandated by Alaska’ constitution is to manage the Chinook and other fish resources using the principal of sustainability and for the benefit of the people of Alaska. Which in case you have forgotten, we are talking about us saving the State fish and all of us being given a fair and reasonable opportunity to harvest common property fish resources , but not render them extinct.

    • Many people think lots of stupid shit. So let’s ignore the many people and consider the science.

      What would be the mechanism whereby sockeye destroy king redds? The fish would appear to spawn in different areas.

      Sockeye prefer currents of 10-15 cm/s, according to the literature on glacial, in-river spawning, while Chinook seek out areas with current in the range of 30-90 cm/s.

  4. Developing and implementing selective harvest strategies in the set net fishery is the way forward. Much better late than never.

    • Kevin:
      It may be to late for implementation of selective harvest strategies for Chinooks in UCI. The best solution would be the elimination of the Set net fishery. Period! How to accomplish that is the tricky thing. The best way and most equitable way is a buy back program of those permits. For a State that has over 80 billion $ in its permanent fund it seems like a no brainer. The buy out will be one of the best investments the state would ever make and be consistent with the constitutional mandate to manage the resource for sustainability Then simply shut down the in- river fishing for Chinook until the numbers get where they need to be.
      Hopefully it would not be too late. Because once the species goes past the tipping point it is game over.
      There have been countless attempts to introduce selective harvest methods in the set net fishery. All have met with resistance by the permit holders. No reason to think that will change. And there is ample fishing power between the drift fleet, dip net and sports fishers to achieve proper escapements.
      All that is needed is a strong leader not afraid of the next election and a purposeful legislature that feels the same.

      • Sounds like same old, same old, trying things that haven’t worked in the past, once again hoping they will work in the future. As we saw with Cook Inlet commfish support of Bill Walker, everyone will play nicely right up until the point the next commfish-friendly governor is elected, after which they will get the steamroller out once again and vacuum every single salmon from Cook Inlet.

        Solution remains as discussed by CM, onshore (RAS) / offshore fish farming. The more nets we get out of the water, the better wild stocks will recover. Sadly, nobody wants to even discuss this approach much less try it. Cheers –

      • AkF,
        Great idea,ecxept for the govt buyout.
        Make the winners or potential winners fund the buyout.
        Much the same way Bering sea crab rationalization worked.
        No fed buyout,the remaing fleet who became resource winners payed for it over time.
        One probably could make an argument for the state taking your approach,because it was the state that originally created the permits in the first place.
        IMO,it shouldnt be the roll of govt to buy out others problems.
        In that same way I was against residents who lived on the Matsu river from being allowed a buyout when the river changed course.
        Which rivers do,who would have thought?

  5. Finally a recognition by the ADF&G and the Board of Fisheries that the state Constitution trumps the Set netters claim that over escapement does harm to the fishery. And also that there is a significant number of Kings that are killed but not reported. And that the reason is that every King killed and reported can and should eventually lead to restrictions to the set net fishery. Just like another nail in their commercial harvest coffin.
    Interesting that Jensen, a commercial fisher who a few years ago under the Walker administration and who then voted hard line in every case for the commercial fisheries, now under the Dunleavy administration votes for Anglers and conservation of the King. What a chameleon.
    And now John Wood, a sports fishing advocate votes to allow commercial harvest in spite of the science.
    I suspect that they both want to please the opposition to their appointments. Very disingenuous on their part.

  6. Last years Kenai sockeye numbers were heavily polluted by the large run of pink salmon.

    • You can’t use that excuse in even and odd run years. Runs are later, now most sockeye return in August. Our government has mandated it be so, knowingly or not…and so it is.

  7. I fished kings in the Kenai daily from 1984 to 1996. I fished the last time for kings with Hal Borg in 2006 when he retired. It is my firm belief that the lack of food in the ocean has led to the destruction of the Kenai King Salmon run. In 1980, China started building up to 2000 coal powered plants which was limited to 1200 plants in 2008. Currently they have over 1000 coal fired plants that produce a massive amount of sulphuric acid. The same sulphuric acid that a handful of similar coal burning plants caused enough acid rain in the 1960’s and 1970’s that sterilized the lakes and rivers of The Adirondack Mountains in New York, Maine and Quebec. I have been told by NOAA that the North Pacific has lost 83% of it’s zooplankton between 1980 to 2015. Assuming that is true, the level must be much higher today. We all know that zooplankton is the basis of food in the ocean. Without zooplankton, nothing else survives. The Canadian Sockeye that had returns in excess of 20 million during the past 10 years until 2016. The return in 2020 was under 300,000. When do we open our eyes and stop blaming each and realize fossil fuels are killing our salmon.

  8. 🎶the change it had to come, we knew it all along🎵
    More money for the state in tourist fish than commercial salmon harvest.
    Plan and simple, Kenai kings are more important than fears of over escaping sockeye on the Kenai River.
    We will see how that works out. The important thing is the BOF process survived, thanks to the ADF&G commissioner.

    • Akoutdoor
      Apparrently you don’t live on the kenai. Any idiot would realize that the waiting lines in Louies, Fred Meyer, Trustworthy hardware etc the last two weeks are from SOCKEYE harvesters. The king run sadly was devasted for years by 400 guide boats fishing 4 to 5 rods per boat twice daily. Now ocean conditions are not allowing a recovery even with reduced sport and commercial harvest.

      • The highest Guide registration on the Kenai was 2006. It was 395. That number includes all the trout guides in the middle and upper river.

      • Gunner!
        I know that as a commercial fisher you just cannot come to grips with the reality that the King runs in UCI have been decimated by years and years of having hundreds of miles of set Gill Nets fishing for Sockeye during the months of June, July , and August but at the same time killing Kings and in many many cases the harvest not being reported. You can blame the anglers all you want but we both know that the catch and killing power of the miles and miles of nets have done infinitely more damage to the King runs then a few hundred anglers. And like most all of the commercial fleet you blame the low abundance on the sport, dip netters, ocean conditions and everybody / everything else except the commercial Gill netters. That argument is simply not working anymore. And most everyone is figuring that out.

      • Hey guys, this isn’t just a Kenai river issue. Step outside of your tiny box that you’ve constructed and look around. This is happening all over the state, and all over the king salmon range. While you guys are slinging mud and blaming the other guy about low returns on one run on one river there is a bigger world out there where king salmon runs are faltering all over the map. It’s as idiotic as blaming oil production in one very small and specific location for the failure of runs across the entirety of the Eastern North Pacific Ocean. In other words, there are more king bearing rivers than the Kenai that are facing the exact same issue.

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