Missing fishermen

Salmon gillnetters clogging the mouth of the Kenai River in a normal year/UCIDA photo


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.

Drifters have for years trooped before the Alaska Board of Fisheries to complain they aren’t getting enough fishing time and to decry the bogeyman of over-escapement.

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.

Salmon numbers

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.

Lean ground beef was at $4.49 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.

From 1968 to 2009, according to Fish and Game research, the return averaged 4.63 sockeye per spawner in the Kenai River, the Peninsula’s biggest and most contested sockeye-producing system. 

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.

The 12.69 return came from 756,000 spawners in 1982, but so did a return of 1.9 from a like number of spawners –  795,000 –  in 1990, according to the data. 

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.



8 replies »

  1. Earlier this year, the Bristol Bay fishers told me they were expecting roughly 2.00/lb. What happened?

    • Peter Pan base price is $1.15, other BB processors have not posted.
      rumors & bs do not count, during pre-season

  2. Craig. Most drifters aren’t necessarily concerned with more time on the water, we would prefer not to be confined to corridors. Todays fishery is a perfect example. Much of the fleet fished several hours for very few fish. Tomorrow, while not a full opener,at least allows the fleet to get out to the rips in the middle. As far as lack of participation, one factor is dual permits. Not sure how many there are, but I do see a lot of boats with the D on the cabin. Another factor might be the age of permit holders. Due to the mismanagement of this fishery, new entrants are reluctant to enter, and there are a lot of old farts like me that are past retirement age,but continue to fish, maybe not as hard as we used to. Rising costs of fuel and supplies may also influence some permit holders from fishing certain days which they think will not be productive. I would be interested in knowing how many dual permits there are in uci this season

  3. “…….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………”
    I’m still waiting to learn if cows are open in the August Nelchina caribou hunt. If not, record diesel prices will likely keep me home. No need to spend all that money on a low probability hunt. And I will not buy a 4×4, 1-ton electric pickup truck for obvious reasons, so the greenies tactic of destroying the economy by blowing up fuel prices might not reward them with their supposed intentions.

  4. I suspect that something is going on between UCIDA and the Feds! And I would not be surprised if the State was involved. Why would UCIDA lie down and let the State manage the fish in federal waters after the recent Federal Court’s decision that required the Feds to do so. I sense that something will come out of this that smacks of MSY management and using national standards not only in federal waters but through out the range of salmon into State waters. Nothing could be worse for Alaskans.

  5. Bidenflation!!!!… Plus, the Democrats war on energy. The Democrats push for the phony, environmentally unfriendly “Green New Deal”. The Democrats “cut and run” out of Afghanistan at China’s request as both would profit off the $3 trillion in rare earth metals that make environmentally unfriendly EV batteries for the transition by 2030. All planned by rotten to the core evil “Globalists”.
    West Coasters, you seeing a pattern here? No? Figures! You’re being had, and yes, it all goes hand-in-hand with the price of salmon.

    • excuse me? China requested us to leave? what type of trump kool aid are you drinking. Trump had already set in motion the Afghan exit, and it was supposed to be in May 2021. You are so full of bs! what an asshat! Loser!

      on another note: what a horrible waste of American men & women dying in a place, that we had no business being in the first place. all we did was made billions of dollars for the military industrial corporations. we also help the tribal chieftains ship their opium back to the US.
      We never should have been there in the first place.

      • Jame’s Trump set conditions for the withdrawal. Democrats threw it all away at the expense of more American blood for profits. Who do you think is going to mine the batteries out of Afghanistan for your new EV?

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