The 2022 fishing season might have left some commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet mad as hell and wanting to do battle with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in court, but state fishery managers are claiming a small victory for late-run Kenai River king salmon, the biggest of the salmon species.
Whether it will mean anything in the long run only time will tell.
Kings, or Chinook as the big fish are largely known along the West Coast of North America, are facing significant survival problems in the ocean, and thus there is no guarantee that meeting minimum spawning goals in the Kenai or any other Alaska river system will ensure the bountiful runs Alaskans have sometimes witnessed in the past.
But state fisheries managers have reported squeaking just over the minimum escapement goal of 13,500 big kings in-river this year with a sonar count of 13,952. They offered no plus-minus on that tally, but the sonar used to count salmon returning to the glacially turbid Kenai is nowhere accurate enough to measure kings to single digits.
Still, the 452 fish over the goal would seem certain to indicate the minimum goal was met even if the return fell well short of the minimum goal of 15,000 for the optimum escapement, and was nowhere near the middle of the 13,500-to-27,000 window for the sustainability managers would like to hit.
Escapement is an old fisheries management term used to describe the number of spawning salmon that escape predators – whales, seals and predominately humans – to reach in-river spawning areas.
Fishery managers this year achieved the escapement goal by shutting down by emergency order the commercial set gillnet fishery on the east side of the Inlet on July “`17 just as the sockeye salmon that fuel that fishery were beginning to swarm to the Kenai.
Offshore drift gillnet fisheries were allowed to continue, but the 500 to 530 fishermen who regularly participate in the shore-based setnet fishery were forced to sit on the beach and fume as more than 1.35 million sockeye made their way into the river, eventually pushing the sockeye escapement count to almost 500,000 fish over the minimum in-river goal for that species.
The state limited-entry program in 1975 handed out 759 permits to fishermen who’d established themselves in the Upper Inlet’s setnetting business and 735 permits are still valid, but participation has fallen since 1990 when it peaked with 662 setnetters fishing, according to data from the state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission.
The peak coincided with high salmon prices and big returns of sockeye to the Inlet. The setnet fishery was a bonanza in the late 1980s that allowed setnetters to haul in, on average, more than $160,00 for a couple months of work for the years 1987, 1988 and 1989, according to the state data.
Like most Alaska bonanzas, it didn’t last long. Average earnings fell to $46,811 in 1990, and since then, they have topped that number only once. Few still make a living from commercial setnetting in the Inlet, but many setnetters have engaged in the heated political and legal battles to maintain harvests in the fishery both for the immediate value of the fish and the future value of the permits the state once gave away.
Those permits became the personal property of the original owners. The permits have been bought and sold a lot since 1975. A Fisheries Commission report tallied nearly 2,100 “new entrants” in the fishery between 1975 and 2018 with the notation that “individuals are only counted once as a new entrant and only in the year in which they made their first documented landing.”
But the number of new entrants has fallen steadily over the decades along with permit prices as Inlet sockeye catches have declined and problems with Chinook bycatch in the setnet fishery have increased. Permit values peaked at $189,270 in 1990, according to the Commission, and then began plummetting.
Over the past decade, the Commission valued them at anywhere from $14,000 to $17,000.
The big problem
With Chinook salmon runs generally weak along the Gulf of Alaska coast from Kodiak Island east and south to Canada, king salmon bycatch has come to haunt the Inlet setnet fishery.
The setnet season ended in the middle of July this year because state fishery managers concluded the inevitable and predictable catch of kings in eastside setnets would make it impossible to meet the escapement goal for those big fish in the Kenai.
Setnetters cried that it wasn’t fair; fishery managers countered by citing the sad history of mixed-stock fisheries like this when the weak stock, in this case Chinook, is allowed to be over-harvested in order to maximize the harvest of the strong stock, in this case sockeye.
That sort of management has in the past spent weak stocks spinning down the toilet drain.
“The Department is aware of the impact restrictions and closures had to all uses,” fisheries biologist wrote in a press release summarizing the Kenai Chinook return this year. “While painful, the restrictions allowed us to attain the sustainable escapement goal this year, and to begin to rebuild this stock, despite not attaining the optimum escapement goal (OEG). Unless otherwise directed, the Department will continue to take the necessary conservation actions to achieve the OEG for this stock.
Eastside setnetters reported catching 306 of the big fish before their fishery was closed this year and Fish and Game calculated that anglers on the river caught and removed 17, but both numbers are suspect. There is no formal system for recording angler catches, and setnet catches were this year out of sync with historical harvests.
Setnetters reported catching 342 sockeye per king – two and a half times fewer than the long-term average of 132 per king. Some have said they were rolling kings out of their nets and back into the Inlet in hopes of putting more spawners in the Kenai.
How many of those fish might have survived is a total unknown, but past studies of what are commonly called gillnet “dropouts” – fish that are snagged in the monofilament gillnet but somehow manage to then escape – have warned of sorry consequences for the fish that escape.
David Welch, a Canadian who has studied the movements of salmon in the Inlet by fitting them with acoustic tracking devices, is convinced the setnet bycatch problem could be solved. All available evidence points to Chinook traveling deeper in the water column than sockeyes, he said.
Welch is confident that a net depth could be found that would allow setnetters to skim sockeye off the top of the water column while letting Chinook slip beneath unharmed. Shallower nets, he concedes, might catch fewer sockeye per hour than traditional nets.
But, he added, if the shallower nets only catch sockeye, there is no reason not to increase the number of hours they are allowed to fish, and salmon fishery managers are generally agreed that the biologically best way to harvest wild salmon is in selective terminal fisheries – terminal fisheries being those closet to the fishes’ river of origin.
Much of Alaska’s success in managing salmon has come from a steady shift away from what were large, mixed-stocked fisheries prior to Statehood to more discreet terminal fisheries wherever possible. The Canadians, struggling to rebuild salmon runs in British Columbia, have recently taken note of this.
“The combination of terminal fisheries and the use of selective gear results in reduced pressure on weaker stocks relative to traditional mixed-stock marine fisheries,” they noted in their 2018-2022 Wild Salmon Policy. “Selective fishing is a conservation-based management approach that allows for the harvest of surplus target species while aiming to minimize or avoid the harvest of species or stocks of concern, or to release bycatch unharmed.”
In the interest of making the east side setnet fishery more selective, the state has tried to force an arbitrary, shallow-net standard on east side setnetters only to find itself dragged into court. Setnetter support for proving that there is a net depth that will fish clean – catching almost all sockeyes and no Chinook – has proven almost non-existent.
This does not bode well for the future.
The forecast for the 2023 return of Kenai Chinook isn’t expected until January, but the trend lines would point to another bad year. Though this year’s return was the best in the last four years, and managed to meet the escapement goal for the first time since 2018, the total return of about 14,200 big Chinook pushed the five-year-average total return down to near 14,000, according to Fish and Game data.
The long-term average – from 1986 through 2021 – is 41,600, a number inflated by order of magnitude returns prior to 2009. From 2008 back to 1986, the Kenai never witnessed a return of late-run Chinook less than 33,000 fish, and it was an oddity, a dip in a more than two-decade stretch that averaged about 50,000 Chinook per year.
The river now hasn’t seen a return of 33,000 in14 years. The new normal peaked at 31,262 in 2017 before plummeting again.
Things do not look good for the big fish in Alaska’s best-known river.
Since then, it hasn’t seen a run bigger than 33,000, and