An Alaska judge on Monday decided that salmon matter more than money and turned down a request that he order state Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang to reopen commercial setnet fishing in Cook Inlet.
The Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund had asked Kenai Superior Court Judge Jason Gist to issue a temporary restraining order blocking Vincent-Lang’s July 15 closure of the set gillnet fishery in the Inlet’s upper subdistrict to protect a faltering run of Kenai River Chinook salmon.
The closure to protect the big fish that Alaskans almost universally call “kings” forced to the beach about 200 then-active setnetters who were subsequently forced to watch tens of thousands of sockeye salmon – their money fish – escape up the Kenai.
They went to court to argue that shutting down their fishery, which predominately catches sockeye, to protect a small number of king salmon was an unfair and largely political decision.
“The entire season catch of large Kenai kings by those setnetters is less than 100, which is hardly noteworthy given the inaccurate ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) sonar program,” their attorney, Carl Bauman, claimed in his filings.
“Big kings” – late-run Kenai Chinook over 34 inches in length – are considered the river’s prime spawning females. But there are egg-bearing Chinook smaller than that, and the setnetters reported catching more than 200 of those before their season closed.
How many Chinook went unreported is an unknown, but there is now a huge incentive for setnetters to roll gillnet kings back into the Inlet dead and pretend they never saw them – something that would not be hard to do.
Setnetters claim to report all their catch, but there is reason to wonder.
From 1954 through 2011, through good years and bad. all Cook Inlet salmon fisheries combined harvested an annual average of one king salmon for every 132 sockeye harvested, according to Fish and Game data.
In the best of those years, commercial fishermen harvested 64,000 Chinook and in the worst but 5,000. The catch to date this year is 2,248 with the bulk of it – 1,316 kings – comprised of kings headed for the Susitna River or streams on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Setnetters – who have historically accounted for the bulk of the Chinook harvest – this year reported catching 104,530 sockeye and 306 Chinook before their fishery was shut down, according to state records.
That works out to a ratio of 342 sockeye per king, a catch rate of kings to sockeye two and half times lower than the long-term average.
This could simply be an indication of how few kings there are this year, but the ratio of kings to sockeye counted entering the Kenai River to date is closer to the historic harvest rate of 132 sockeye to every king than the 2022 rate of 342 sockeye for every king.
As of this writing, the Fish and Game sonar had counted 1,208,915 sockeye and 8,686 of those “big kings” entering the river for a ratio of one king for every 139 sockeye.
Still, it could be the king run is later this year than normal, and the setnet fishery closed before late-run kings arrived in force.
It is even possible that east-side, Cook Inlet setnetters have found some way to fish cleaner, but simply aren’t talking about it. Many fisheries have shown they can reduce incidental and/or bycatch when they want to or when forced to do so.
A historical Kodiak Island catch rate of about one king for every 200 sockeye fell to one for every 367 sockeye last year after the state ordered “non-retention” of kings in fisheries on the island’s western end to protect weak runs of Chinook to the Karluk and Ayakulik river.
Still, Kodiak seiners harvested almost 9,000 Chinook last year, some of which were from Cook Inlet and the vast majority of which were from somewhere other than Kodiak Island.
State researchers who genetically fingerprinted Kodiak Chinook in the middle of the past decade reported that “in the annual commercial harvest, over 50 percent of the fish were from British Columbia (Canada) and over 30 percent of the fish were from the West Coast U.S.
“In the marine sport fishery, the relative abundance of British Columbia and West Coast U.S. fish varied, but jointly represented over 80 percent of annual harvest.
“In both the commercial and sport fisheries, the annual harvest of Kodiak-origin Chinook salmon was below 5 percent of the total harvest.”
Kodiak seiners are catching a lot of other people’s salmon, but the fish come from such a wide range of watersheds the Kodiak harvest is unlikely to have a significant effect on any of those watersheds.
The historic argument for these Alaska intercept fisheries is also a valid one: the fish graze and grow fat on the pastures off Alaska’s coast and thus Alaskans are entitled to a fair share.
This is the complicated nature of West Coast salmon fisheries, which might be enough to make a wise jurist avoid trying to take over the management of Alaska salmon fisheries barring obvious evidence of mis- or malfeasance in the management thereof.
Bauman, the attorney for the setnetters, has made broad accusations such malfeasance exists, but produced no real evidence that the state has done anything but try to preserve the weakest return of salmon in a difficult-to-manage, mixed-stock salmon fishery.
“The economics of commercial fishing, both drift gillnet and set gillnet
fishing, are being hammered as a result of ADF&G issuing arbitrary and
capricious emergency orders that favor the sport, sport-guided, and personal-use (dipnet) fisheries,” Bauman charged. “The biased management of the UCI salmon stocks by ADF&G violates federal law as well as Alaska constitutional, Statehood Compact, statutory, regulatory, and case
But he offered no evidence that the Board of Fish – which sets the fishing regulations and is put in the uncomfortable position of mediating between the demands of approximately 1,300 commercial fishermen and tens of thousands of anglers and dipnetters all wanting maximum numbers of salmon – has done anything illegal.
The same can be said for the fishery managers carrying out the Board’s orders.
Some Kenai sport fishing guides trying to prevent their businesses being shut down have in the past made similar arguments to those the setnetters presented in court on Friday. Catch-and-release angling results in a kill of so few kings that the margin of error in the sonar count of fish, they once argued.
The state shut them down anyway. Over the years, state fishery managers have pretty solidly held to the idea that if it appears minimum spawning goals are not going to be met every fish counts.
That is why both the sport fishery for late-run Kenai kings has been closed since mid-July, and why the setnet fishery – which has proven unable to eliminate its bycatch of kings – is shut down.\