Alaska’s Kenai River is today a textbook example of the problems of managing mixed-stock fisheries right down to commercial set gillnetters protesting they catch comparatively few of the weak stock.
The weak stock is in this case Chinook, or what Alaskans usually just call king salmon, and it just happens to be the same fish that gets caught as trawl bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
To date this year, according to National Marine Fisheries Service data, trawlers in the Bering Sea have caught about 11,000 Chinook on their way to a harvest of nearly 1 million metric tons – or about 2.2 billion pounds – of pollock.
Given an average size of about 6.5 pounds for those immature Chinook, the salmon harvest would total about 32.4 tonnes of salmon for a catch equal to about 0.00324 percent of the pollock catch.
But that 32.4 tonnes of Chinook is only about a quarter of the just over 45,000 Chinook permitted as trawl bycatch in the pollock fishery.
Many Alaskans think this is too much. These numbers work out to nearly 133 tonnes or about 0.12 percent of the 113,227 tonnes of pollock permitted to harvest this year.
This puts the UCI bycatch of Chinook at a rate more than twice that of the trawl fleet, although the number is probably closer to twice that when the size difference between Chinook and sockeye.
But this is hardly worth bothering about given that commercial gillnetters involved in the east-side set net fishery – where most Kenai kings get caught – insist they mainly catch “small kings,” not the big Kenai spawners.
“On July 20, East Side setnetters fished their last day for the season, restricted to the 600-foot fishery from Boulder Point to Ninilchik. In the 12 hours that day, they harvested 36,668 sockeye and 72 kings. According to Fish and Game estimates, 11 of those kings were large late-run Kenai River kings,” the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, reported.
The newspaper did not put these numbers together on its own. They were handed to a reporter by eastside setnetters who’ve made a big deal out of the idea that they catch a small number of kings and that, in this case, only a little over 15 percent of them were “big” kings.
King Solomon-size problem
This may be true, although there is no way of knowing how many kings might have been rolled out of nets dead because in a situation like the one this year it is to the advantage of setnetters to keep the reported king harvest as low as possible to encourage the state to keep their fishery open.
What is certainly true is that because of the weak return of kings, the setnetters have been forced to sit on the beach and watch a whole lot of money go up the river in the form of leaping salmon, and the number of fish going upriver could have negative implications for future returns.
Set nets off the mouth of the Kenai are one of the main means of controlling how many sockeye salmon escape into the river, and the record escapement this year is way over state goals.
The exact consequences of this are impossible to say. Scientists aren’t much better at predicting the future than any of the rest of us no matter what kind of math they employ.
Nature is subject to too many variables. But the consensus of scientific opinion, supported by data from other fisheries, is that this high escapement is likely to reduce the “return per spawner” number for the 2021 run.
So years in the future, instead of the UCI getting back three adult sockeye for every one that spawned, there might only be two adults or one or maybe even less than one indicating the river has truly “over-escaped,”as it is said.
The previous record escapement was 2.03 million in 1989. It produced a return of 2.2 adults per spawner. The river has never produced a return of less than 1.22, according to the latest state escapement review done in 2020, and so no one really knows where the point of biological over-escapement – which pushes the return below one-to-one – vexists.
That 1.22 return followed an escapement of more than 1.2 million sockeye in 2012. But the record return in 1989 produced a return per spawner of 2.20.
Commercial fishermen fantasize about the nearly 12 adults per spawner returns that were seen off escapements of 750,000 to 800,000 in 1982 and 1983.
Needless to say, returns per spawner are highly variable because nature is full of variables. A 1987 escapement of more than 2 million produced a return of 5.15 adults per spawner and a “yield” of 8.3 million sockeye.
Farming the sea
Yield is the standard by which farmers measure success and the Inlet’s commercial fishermen like this yardstick. Fishery biologists manage for “maximum sustained yield” (MSY). To do so, they crunch decades of data in an effort to arrive at numbers indicating the highest probability of the maximum return per spawner.
Where the situation gets complicated is when the MSYs for sockeye and Chinook conflict.. The minimum MSY for Kenai kings is now 15,000 “large king salmon – fish over 34 inches in length.
The size is an arbitrary one. Some spawning kings are smaller than 34 inches, but the sonar used to count fish in the river can’t reliably differentiate between sockeyes and Chinook under 34 inches.
Thus the spawner standard is unique to the Kenai. The escapement goals for the rivers in the state’s Pandhandle are calculated to include “include large spawners of approximate legal retention size, 28 inches total length,” according to Fish and Game.
How many kings of between 28 and 34 inches enter the Kenai is unknown. What is known is that the state last year missed the minimum goal for 34-inch fish by more than 3,500 fish, or about 23 percent, and by more than 3,100 fish, or about 21 percent, a year earlier.
This year’s count – despite an emergency closure of the commercial set net fishery for sockeye in July – came in about the same as 2019 with almost two-thirds of those fish having escaped into the river since the set net fishery was closed.
The dilemma fishery managers confront in a situation like this is whether to manage for the strong stock – sockeye salmon, in this case – or the weak stock – Chinook, in this case.
The history of management for strong stocks is the collapse of weak stocks. Because of this the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fisheries in federal waters, strictly spell out management standards:
“Salmon stocks are managed to allow sufficient numbers of mature salmon to escape harvest (called ‘escapement’) and return to freshwater to spawn. Under the Salmon Fishery Management Plan (FMP), to ensure long-term sustainability, each salmon stock must meet its prescribed escapement level.
“For determining whether a salmon stock is ‘approaching overfished,’ its escapement is considered over a three-year period. When its escapement forecast in the current year combined with actual escapement in the two previous years falls short of the level prescribed in the FMP, then the stock is determined to be ‘approaching overfished.'”
By federal standards, Kenai Chinook would now be overfished. But state managers are not bound by federal rules. They have the latitude to use some disgression, which brings the discussion back to the number of small kings setnetters catch and the decision by Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang to put the state’s interest in the escapement of Chinook into the Kenai River above the interest of commercial fishermen in catching more sockeye.
The commercial fishermen appealed to the state Board of Fisheries, the ultimate authority on the regulation of Alaska fisheries, and the Board backed Vincent-Lang.
Primarily because managing any fishery by a snapshot of one point in time is a bad idea. The numbers presented to the Board by set net fishermen would indicate that about 85 percent of the Chinook returning to the river this year were under 34 inches.
Were this true across the run, the Kenai should now contain more than 6.5 times the number of Chinook counted by the sonar. This would put almost 77,000 Chinook (the end-of-season sonar count of 11,832 x 6.5) in the river.
Were there that many kings in the Kenai, the anglers now there fishing coho (silver) salmon with lures similar to those used for kings would surely be reporting the incidental hooking of a lot of small Chinook.
Likewise, by this math, there should have been more than 25,500 Chinook in the river by July 21 instead of the 3,953 shown on the counter that date.
That was the day the state closed the in-river fishery for Chinook. No fishing guides, who depend on king anglers for a fair amount of their summer income, showed up at Fish and Game offices to protest the closure because 85 percent of the fish they were hooking were under 34 inches.
It should be noted that anglers are allowed to keep “small” king salmon, but in this case “small” is defined as under 20 inches. A 20-inch Chinook is smaller than many Kenai sockeye.
Those fish weigh so little that Chinook length-to-weight conversion charts end at 25 inches and 6.49 pounds. Kings of this size are what are called “jacks,” precocious males that make an early return to participate in spawning.
The commercial setnetters were noticeably not reporting a lot of kings of that size. They were reporting catches of bigger fish, though many of them were wishing the fish had avoided their nets and freed them to fish sockeye.
Is it possible the set net fishery could be prosecuted in such a manner as to let fix this so-called “bycatch” problem.
Possibly, but exactly how to do that has not been determined because the idea is not well studied. Shallower nets are theorized to let more kings slip beneath, but the theory has not been proven.
It is also possible, if not probable, that some set net sites catch a disproportionate number of Chinook and that if those sites were shut down, the Chinook harvest could be significantly reduced.
But no one has ever examined that possibility because how much of this state resource is taken by individual fishing businesses is considered privileged information.
Oil companies, big or small, are required to report how much oil they take out of the ground in Alaska. Loggers, big or small, are required to report how much timber they harvest from public lands in the 49th state, and the same for commercial miners on state lands.
In state waters, however, individual fishing businesses are allowed to keep this information secret. Historically, this probably well served the fishermen who might have stood to be publicly singled out for the high Chinook harvests,
But now all fishermen might be paying the price.