A flood of sockeye salmon was pushing the Kenai Peninsula’s Kasilof River rapidly toward the point of “over-escapement” on Tuesday with Upper Cook Inlet strangely devoid of commercial drift gillnet fishermen.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game harvest records show only 198 drift gillnetters reporting landing fish on Monday. This is but a third of the 568 fishermen the state gave permits in the early 1970s after Alaska voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow limited entry in commercial salmon fisheries.
Exactly why so few are fishing despite a decent return of sockeye – the Inlet’s money fish – is unclear.
Calls to board members of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s largest and most powerful fishing lobby, went unanswered and unreturned.
The problem is not a lack of fish.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Brian Martson today said those who did fish averaged more than 300 sockeye per boat, adding “that’s not bad.”
Some fishermen, he added, reported catches of up to 900 sockeye, and the state harvest data reflects an average of 336 salmon per boat.
Low prices for salmon and high prices for fuel appear as if they could be at least part of the reason for the lack of effort. The Bristol Bay fishery, the state’s largest sockeye fishery, opened with a posted price of only $1 per pound.
Cook Inlet fish usually are worth more, but how much more this year isn’t clear. There are reports of nearly up to $2 per pound, but they could not be confirmed.
Last year’s season ended with an average ex-vessel price of $1.16 per pound, according to Fish and Game. The ex-vessel price is that paid commercial fishermen at the dock.
Across the state, processors in general have been paying less for sockeye this year than last in part because of concerns about small fish being tough to sell in a global market now focused on salmon filets.
The Kasilof sockeye leading the charge into the Inlet are reported to be averaging 4.4 pounds in a market where bigger fish are preferred.
“…Sockeye pricing is highly dependent on fish size,” according to the McDowell Group, Alaska’s best-known fishing consultancy. “H&G (headed and gutted) sockeye are generally categorized
into three sizes: 2-4 lbs., 4-6 lbs., 6-9 lbs. (based on the processed H&G weight).
“The 4-6 lb. medium size is historically the most common size category; however, as sockeye size has declined in recent years the percentage of 2-4 lb. product has increased. Wholesale prices for 2-4 lb. fish are generally about 20 percent less than the 4-6 lb. size. Prices on 6-9 lb. fish are generally about 20 percent above the 4-6 lb. size.”
Those six- to nine-pound sockeye appear to be in short supply in the Inlet at this time.
Meanwhile, the Fisheries Economics Data Program of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission is reporting a marine diesel price of $5.65 per gallon in Homer, the Inlet’s busiest fishing port, as of the Independence Day holiday.
If commercial fishermen were largely pursuing a “lifestyle,” as commercial fishermen prefer to market themselves in the highly politicized world of fishery politics in the 49th state, this probably wouldn’t matter, and there would likely be a lot more people fishing now.
But at the end of the day, fishing is a business, and in business the numbers matter.
Numbers are what for years have driven the Inlet’s commercial fishermen to chastise state fishery managers and the state Fish Board for allowing too many sockeye salmon to escape nets to enter the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.
More than once, they have gone to court to argue that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is mismanaging the Inlet by sometimes letting too many salmon into the dozens of watersheds that drain into the nearly 200-mile-long finger of the North Pacific Ocean that punches into the gut of Alaska.
Given a June ruling by a federal district court judge, they now believe they are on the verge of forcing federal management of Inlet salmon, which they believe will favor them over sport fishermen, largely tourists who come to Alaska to catch a salmon, and the state’s personal-use dipnetters who pursue salmon in the name of local food security.
UCIDI trumpeted a recent ruling by District Court Judge Joshua M. Kindred’s by proclaiming “UCIDA wins again,” and pushing the claim that “salmon are a national resource and federal law requires that they be managed in the national interest.”
Though UCIDA is excited about the lawsuit, Marston noted that “a lot of uncertainty” around the litigation might have caused some fishermen to abandon the Inlet fishery this year.
Some with multiple permits when fishing elsewhere, he said. Others took jobs as crew. And some likely found summer work outside of an Alaska salmon fishing business facing an uphill battle in global markets.
Still, UCIDA believes things would get better if the feds took over management and ran things in the “national interest,” which is in UCIDA’s view the commercial harvest of salmon to offer for sale to the American public, or at least those who can afford the product.
Sockeye filets were selling for $14.24 per pound at Whole Foods in Seattle on Tuesday, nearly seven times the price of whole chickens at $2.06 per pound and more than twice the price of boneless, skinless chick breasts at $6.49 per pound.
Still, UCIDA believes, or at least preaches, the importance of its feeding the nation, which has led to the commercial drifters’ previous fixation on over-escapement.
The over-escapement argument is based on the idea that the crowding of salmon on the spawning grounds and/or an over-abundance of young salmon after eggs hatch leads to fewer young salmon surviving the freshwater stage of their lives.
Fewer oung fish surviving means fewer young fish going to sea and fewer adults returning. The results can be measured in the number of returning fish per spawner in the years that follow, and UCIDA argues that sometimes smaller returns per spawner after big runs violate a federal requirement for “maximum sustained yield (MSY)” management of the nation’s fisheries.
Unfortunately, there is no direct line between the escapement into rivers – the number of fish escaping the nets and hooks of fishermen to make it to the spawning grounds – and the maximum return per spawner.
Year by year, returns ranged from a low of 1.37 to a high of 12.69, but small runs didn’t always produce big returns and big runs didn’t always produce smaller returns.
Escapements of less than 1.2 million have generally performed better than escapements over that number, but that has not always been the case.
A 1987 escapement of more than 2 million sockeye into the Kenai produced a return of 5.15 fish per spawner.
State fishery managers have over the years put a lot of effort into trying to scientifically determine the optimum escapement goal (OEG). It is now set at 750,000 to 1.3 million with an in-river goal of 1.1 million to 1.4 million.
The in-river goal is higher than the OEG to account for the 300,000 or more sockeye anglers intercept, bonk on the head, and throw in their coolers after the fish enter the river.
Those fishermen are generally restricted to a limit of three fish per day, about a hundredth of a decent day in the commercial fishery. But limits have regularly been boosted when the Kenai and Kasilof rivers are plugged with sockeye.
And this is looking like one of those years.