For the fish

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.

Unreported harvest?

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.

Unlike federal fisheries tracked by observers or onboard cameras, state salmon fisheries have no requirements for independent observers or so-called “electronic monitoring”. 

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.

 Non-retention rule

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
law principles.”

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.\


13 replies »

  1. So the responses here are that commercial set netters are basically dishonest. Right back at you. How many kings are caught on the River and not counted. Let’s not forget that permits include all salmon. Now your not happy that’s they are rolled out of nets. You will never take any responsibility yourselves. They do not target kings if you knew anything you should know this because of the gear size. 29 mesh doesn’t make a difference it just shortens the bag. Obviously you have never seen a net in the water. Let’s talk about guides and in river fishermen that have targeted large kings for over 40 years. Gee pulling out of the gene pole could be part of the bigger picture along with other issues. Putting too many other species in the river doing harm to habitat. Let’s have the State buy out the guides. That sounds like a better idea to me.

    • A.) Who said setnetters were “targetting” Chinook? They aren’t targeting kings any more than the trawlers are.

      B.) Shortening the bag makes a significant difference, given kings travel lower in the water column than sockeye. I don’t know about anyone else here, but I know well how nets work in the water. If you put anchors on it heavy enough to hold the float 15-feet underwater, I can guarantee you will get a lot more starry flounder and a lot less sockeye. Here, there’s an animated depiction to help you see how this works:

      C.) People are dishonest. I’m sure there are some kings illegally pulled out of the river every year, but I’d be surprised if a guide did. The risks are too high. There are just too many eyes watching on the river. It’s not like the beach.

      D.) I’m assuming your “Gee” was meant to be “gene pulling.” That was a suspected problem long ago, which was why the sportfish regulations were rewritten to limit harvests of Chinook over 42 inches or 36 inches years ago. It hasn’t made any difference. Scientists who’ve studied Alaska commercial sockeye fisheries, where massive numbers of fish are harvested for maximum size, have concluded selective fishing probably isn’t that big of a player in fish decreasing in size. You can read about there here: Food availability in the ocean appears a bigger issue.

      E.) Chinook and sockeye use different habitats in the river. If you want a target there for food competition (none of them “harm” habitat), you’d be better off looking at residents species. Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char are now managed for abundance, and there are a whole lot more of them in the river than there were 20 years ago.

      F.) The state didn’t need to buy out the guides. A whole lot of them went broke and out of business when the king fishery crashed. A few adapted to different fisheries and hung on. You might want to go talk to some of them about adaptation. It is the way businesses manage to survive over the long term in an ever-changing world.

  2. Has the ratio of kings to reds between setnetters and driftnetters remained roughly the same over this timeframe, does one group show a markedly different count total or is it just a result of less kings to catch? It’s certainly odd that the sonar count seems to be registering similar ratios as the previous catch numbers but is that apples and oranges with all kings versus big kings? Maybe when the setnetters are restricted to shallow gear the number of kings caught drops as the Canadian study suggests, seems like there should be an ample amount of evidence at this point to make a determination.

    • But part of the latest setnetter argument is that shallower nets DON’T work.

      The 10-year average harvest for Chinook (2009 – 2018) is 501 in the drift fishery and 4,797 in the set fishery, according to Fish and Game data.

      The sockeye average for the drift fleet over the same time is 1.54 million. So one king for every 3,073 or so sockeye.

      They look to be running about 1 for every 5,500 this year, so well below. But the number of Chinook they catch is so small it doesn’t take much to shift the ratio significanlty, which is obvious in the considerable annaul variation. The last time the drift catch of sockeye topped 1.5 million (2014), they caught 382 Chinook for a ratio of one to every 3,926 sockeye.

      The 2014 sockeye count in the Kenai River was 1.5 million and the king 14,134. That’s a ratio of 1 to 106.

      The in-river numbers as of today are 1.3 million sockeye and 9,711 Chinook. That’s a ratio of 1 to 133.

      The 27 point difference there could well be attributable to the shift from counting all kings (theoretically) to only counting those over 34 inches, a standard intended to avoid counting the biggest of sockeye as kings. The largest sockeye on record was about 30 inches.

      The state settled on 34 inches because “90 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.”

      Comparing 2014 and this year, the drift numbers look in the same ballpark with 1 per 4,000 and 1 per 5,500. The setters difference is harder to explain. But, we must remember, correlation is not caustion.

      At this point, it’s no more than a reason to wonder why.

  3. Great article! Finally someone is questioning the chinook numbers sent to the processors. What set netter in their right mind would keep a chinook, and then go sell it just to be counted? I worked on a beach site in the early 90s, even at that time I was told to roll kings out of the net and the ones we did keep were put into totes to be sold privately. ADFG needs an observer program to understand the true catch occurring in the ESSN fishery.

  4. This is an excellent time for the state to offer to buy back east side commercial set net permits.

  5. The east side setnets have not been allowed to fish the early run chinook in the last 45 years, yet the early run is not meeting escapement goals. Something needs to change. Just thinking outside the box, how about letting the setnetters fish and having the chinook harvest proceeds be allocated to adfg for further studies as to how other factors effect the chinook run – trawl interception, kodiak and false pass interception, warming water conditions,impact by ocean ranching of pink, chum and sockeye,etc. Maybe a dumb idea, but what is currently being done is not working.

    • There’s been a slot limit on the ER Kenai kings for nearly 20 years that is suppose to protect the large fish, in particular, the females. How’s that going? Yup, think outside the box. Killing more kings wherever they may be is not the answer.

      • Everyone is flailing trying to explain the crash. Some of the Kenai guides are starting to question the massive rainbow and dolly population in the Kenai as a possible cause. Doesn’t explain king crashes in the MatSu, though. Cheers –

    • Yep, dumb idea. Because it is based on false premise. ESSN has been Catching Chinook every opener they fish for Reds. The real question is how many kings are killed by the set net fishers. Everyone knows that there are an unknown number of drop outs that occur when the 500’permit holders put all their gear in the water.Miles of set nets catch lots of Kings that drop out of the net dead dead and never counted or reported. Then there are the fishers that keep a “few” kings without reporting them.
      It seems clear to honest people that the set nets harvest and sell some, but not all of the Kings they get into the boat. So YES they are allowed to catch and report Kings, but just use smaller mesh.

    • Not a dumb idea at all, Gunner. Neither would be setting a percentage of harvest quota for their king harvest as the Canadians do with trawl bycatch. But then we’d need observers to keep any eye on the setnetters to make sure they reported their catches or electronic monitoring, and Alaska commercial fishermen have in general screamed murder about electronic monitoring.

      It’s almost as if they don’t want us to know how many fish they are each catching. Oh wait, the state already protects them from the public discovering this information, though it would be interesting.

      I’d expect some ESSN setnet sites, given the way fish move, catch a much larger proportion of kings than others. Part of the solution to the problem might be as simple as closing those sites to fishing.

      But the biggest problem here is that nobody wants to fix the problem, most especially the ESSNers who would apparently rather be shutdown than fish shallower nets to see if that can be made to work.

      • You nailed it Craig. Just like in river sections of the river have been closed to fishing to protect vulnerable spawning kings, shut down set net sites that have historic high catch rates.

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