Lifting the curtain


Window opens for possible “Fish War’ game changer

Amidst chaos comes the change if not the need to think outside the box, and thus Alaska fishery biologists today find themselves staring into the face of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If only they recognize it.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has already concluded that the summer’s run of Kenai River Chinook salmon – the big fish Alaskans call “king salmon” – is going to be so small that in the interest of conservation the commercial setnet fishery that normally operates in late June and July along the eastern beaches of Cook Inlet must be shut down.

That fishery is not aimed at kings. Sockeye salmon are its money fish, but there is a catch called “bycatch” –  fish that are caught by…accident when other types of fish are being caught,” as the Oxford Dictionary defines the word. 

In this case, the fish caught by accident are kings. The way the setnet fishery works today it can’t catch sockeye without incidentally catching kings.

Some pretty knowledgeable people have believed for a long time that this problem can be fixed, among them the late Ken Tarbox, who once managed commercial fisheries in Cook Inlet; Kevin Delaney, the former director of Sport Fisheries for Fish and Game; Gary Hollier, a Kenai setnetter willing to experiment with different fishing techniques; and David Welch, a specialist in the tracking of salmon using what are called passive integrated transponder tags or PIT tags for short, and acoustic transmitters to track fish in the marine environment.

Almost a decade ago, Welch and colleagues conducted a preliminary investigation into the idea of using shallower nets in the Inlet to catch sockeye swimming near the surface while allowing deeper swimming kings to slip safely beneath.

They concluded then that “such a strategy could potentially enable managers to achieve high rates of (king salmon) population rebuilding while maintaining acceptable levels of (commercial fisheries) employment and revenue in the near term.”

Hating change

Most of the 735 people who hold state permits to place setnets along Inlet beaches to catch salmon for profit were, however, opposed to any shift away from traditional nets to shallow nets, and Fish and Game personnel largely sabotaged an attempt at a more definitive study.

State employees with little experience or expertise in the use of acoustic tracking wanted to conduct an in-depth study themselves and ended up making a mess of it.

The Board of Fisheries did eventually offer setnetters the option of fishing greater lengths of shallow nets or shorter lengths of traditional nets. But setnetters, with a few exceptions, never really embraced the idea.

For those unfamiliar with how these nets work, envision a curtain of hard-to-see monofilament netting hanging in the water supported by floats on the top with lead weights holding down the bottom. Salmon swimming up the Inlet swim into openings in the hard-to-see mesh and are hung there by their gills which act like barbs on fishhooks to prevent them from pulling their heads back out.

The late Bob Penney – an avid angler, advocate for Kenai River kings, and enemy number one of setnetters – along with various others liked to call these nets “curtains of death.”

The kings that hit the nets are often too big to get gilled in the netting, but regularly ended up tangled in the monofilament and drown there.

The number of kings killed by the nets used to number in the thousands per year, but with kings in decline throughout the north Pacific Ocean, reported annual catches have now fallen into the hundreds.

Whether all of the catch is being reported is a subject of some debate. Setnetters have in recent years had a huge financial incentive to roll dead kings back into the Inlet – even though they are pound-for-pound the most valuable salmon in Alaska – to keep the bycatch low and thus keep the sockeye fishery open.

This year, however, they’re not even going to get that opportunity.

Having failed to meet the minimum spawning goal for late-run Kenai kings for four years running, state fishery managers decided very early this year that they could afford to sacrifice any spawners to the setnet fishery and closed the fishery before it even opened.

All indications are the setnetters will spend the summer on the beach angrily watching the sockeye they could harvest swim past to head up the Kenai and Kaslif rivers.

The perfect time

This will cost them millions of dollars, but the lack of an active setnet fishery in the Inlet presents a near-perfect opportunity to conduct an experimental fishery to determine once and for all if shallower nets can solve the bycatch problem.

Welch, for his part, is convinced they can. There are others who agree.

Welch believes a comprehensive, PIT-tag study would clearly show that when shallow nets are employed, they catch plenty of sockeye moving in the upper water column while most of the kings slip beneath unscathed.

A good PIT study would, obviously, cost money. But if the state set up an experimental fishery, it could use the sale of fish caught in that fishery to finance the study.

And even if state fishery managers decided the high-tech experiment wasn’t likely to produce enough revenue to cover the cost of conducting it, there is a cheaper alternative that could produce useful results, albeit less concrete than those provided by tracked fish.

The state has decades of data from the so-called “fish tickets” that document the sale of commercially caught salmon. That data should make it possible to ferret out which setnet sites in the Inlet normally catch the most kings.

Fishing those sites with shallower nets on what have been regularly scheduled fishing periods for decades would in and of itself provide some interesting data.

From the old data, fishery managers should be able to determine the ratio of kings caught per X-number of sockeye at these sites. An experimental, shallow-net fishery documenting a significant downward shift in the ratio of kings to sockeyes would provide a good indication shallower nets work as intended.

What that ratio turned out to be might fundamentally transform the fishery. Yes, it’s possible, as the setnetters fear, that shallower nets would reduce their sockeye catch per period.

So let’s do some theoretical math.

Say shallower nets cut the sockeye harvest per opening by one-quarter and the king harvest by three-quarters. In our simplified model with a catch of 100 sockeyes to 10 kings, this would translate into a catch of 75 sockeye and two and a half kings per fishing period.

Two periods would thus, theoretically, yield 150 sockeye and only five kings. That’s 50 sockeye the setnetters lose on account of the shallower nets. But fishery managers could add another fishing period to boost that sockeye catch.

Adding another period to catch another 75 sockeye would bring the total to 225, a harvest greater than the two-period take with traditional nets, but increase the overall king catch by only two and half more fish bringing the total to seven and a half.

That is a 67 percent reduction in the 20 king catch of two traditional fishing periods with traditional gear while increasing the catch of sockeye.

Of course, this is all theory. It could turn out that Welch and others are wrong and the shallower nets don’t reduce the Chinook catch all that much.

But there’s no way of telling what really works without doing the experiment, and if it did prove shallower nets work there are implications that stretch far beyond the beaches on the east side of the Inlet and the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

Mixed stock mess

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) an organization controlled by commercial fishing interests, is now, thanks to a decision by a federal court judge with no understanding of how the Inlet fishery works, contemplating how to run a drift gillnet fishery in the federal waters in the middle of the Inlet.

A large harvest of sockeye there significantly slows the flow of sockeye to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers but again there is that catch of bycatch.

While the drift fishery doesn’t catch many Kenai kings, it can catch significant numbers of sockeye and coho salmon bound for the Matanuska and Susitna rivers draining into the north end of the Inlet.

Sockeye and coho runs in some of the streams in those watersheds are struggling.

While everywhere else in the world, fishery managers are trying to reduce harvests in mixed stock fisheries to minimize the impacts on weaker stocks of fish in this sort of situation, the NPFMC is looking like it might do the opposite despite what the science clearly says.

“The mixed stock management problem is well known to biologists in the North Pacific as it applies to salmon,” Australian researchers observed almost 25 years ago after the Alaska Sea Grant program asked them to examine “Ecosystem Approaches for Fisheries Management” in the 49th state. “Paulik et al. (in 1967) showed that stocks of a single species of salmon often have differing productivity rates, and that when these stocks are caught together in an offshore fishery at a high catch rate, the least productive of the stocks will decline in spawning biomass.

“He showed how to calculate the rates of decline in relation to
offshore catch rate and how to arrive at the rate that would sustain all of the stocks. He pointed out that maintaining the least productive stock means giving up catch potential of the most productive stock. The catch rate that maximizes the take for the most productive stock will cause the least productive stock to disappear.”

Disappearance is what some fear for the weaker stocks of Mat-Su fish that must run a gauntlet of drift gillnets on their way back to the streams of their birth.

The more the drift fleet fishes for fish bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers near mid-Inlet, the bigger the problem for the Mat-Su river systems.

The ideal solution to the problem is to reduce the mixed-stock harvest and increase the harvest in what have come to be called “terminal” or “pre-terminal” fisheries.

Terminal fisheries select for fish returning to an individual river. Pre-terminal fisheries select for fish returning to a limited number of rivers.

The Inlet’s eastside setnet fishery (ESSN) is a classic pre-terminal fishery. It catches primarily fish bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and only some stray Mat-Su salmon.

From a management standpoint, the more salmon caught in the ESSN fishery instead of out in the Inlet, the better for the Mat-Su and the better for Alaska salmon stocks in general.

But in the ESSN there remains that catch, the Kenai king salmon bycatch.

After his retirement from Fish and Game, Tarbox, who succumbed to cancer last year, pointed the finger of blame for failing to solve this bycatch problem at the agency with which he was long employed.

Now that same agency has a unique opportunity to do something about the problem. The setnetters who have for years argued against shallower nets might be right.

Shallow nets might not change anything, but then again they might. And there is no better time than now to conduct the needed experiment to find out if they will.

Correction: An earlier version of this story could have been read to suggest PIT tags were used in the original study of salmon movement conducted by Welch et al. The story has been edited to make it clear that acoustic trackers were used in that study.



18 replies »

  1. This will not work. While in its most simplistic description, I understand why some people might wish to try it,but one phone call to an old friend who setnetted on the Kenai for decades put this theory into the wastebasket permanently.

    You have to have deep water and it is the amount of water under the leadline of the net that matters. The Kenai beaches are so shallow and gradual that there is zero water under the nets except the outer nets and only at high water slack. One has to remember that for decades setnet fishermen have paid close attention to when a net catches fish and when it does not. They have shallow nets and nets in slightly deeper water. They both catch Chinooks. Try consulting with setnetters and listening to them.

    Mr. Medred is happy to quote Bob Penney who called the gillnets a wall of death. Mr. Penney made big profits running a lodge and taking boatloads of rich sports fishermen out to kill a Chinook salmon. The bigger fish, the better. Essentially strip mining the gene pool of the largest Chinook specimens.

    When I arrived on the Kenai in 1986, I had never seen so many hooks. The hooks were a “Wall of death” also. You would have to be blind to the huge numbers of sportsmen dragging the Kenai River.The Lodge industry was big money. They were flying strippers in from Fort Lauderdale to dance at Good Time Charlies, just for the wealthy sportsmen. There were a lot of wealthy people, spending boatloads of money.

    The well-connected folks on the river like Bob Penny or the Murkowskis wanted this Chinook resource for catering to the wealthy and politically connected and were willing to fight to extract it from the setnetters.

    The Kenai River Chinook salmon resource had been sustainable for almost 100 years, including targeted commercial setnet openings on Chinooks for decades. The resource simply could not take the pressure from the commercial setnetters and the newly exploding trophy Chinook fishery.

    So what happens when the wealthy and politically connected run up against the working class? The working class losses. The sports lodge industry blamed the commercial industry constantly and applied lots of political pressure to ensure the lodge industry had lots of fishing time. More than was sustainable.

    Sadly, in this race for trophy chinooks the boats got bigger and faster, eventually eroding the overhanging banks with their wakes. These over-hanging banks provided protection for the out-migrating Chinook smolt ensuring that fewer Chinook smolt survived the trip down the river to the sea.

    The tragedy is that not only did the greedy wealthy trophy fishermen destroy this magnificent Chinook resource, but they effectively bankrupted the working-class fishermen and families which had setnetted the Kenai successfully for decades before the wealthy safari crowd from out of state arrived.

    You want to know where the Kenai Kings have gone, well they are mounted on the walls of wealthy people are over the world.

    • Doug: All I can surmise is that you haven’t been back to the Kenai River since 1986, and exactly what “lodge” was it that Penney ran? I’m unfamiliar with that.

      You are right about water under the nets. There obviously has to be water under the nets for Chinook to swim under them, which presents a problem ADF&G could have solved long ago. There is no “need” for regular, 12-hour commercial fishing periods. These could easily be changed to six- or four-hour periods timed around high tide to get nets off the bottom.

      There are some highly successful setnetters who believe shallower nets work, and some data that backs up their observation. I would suggest that your “old friend” is more “old” than knowledgeable on the subject. Knowledge is, sadly, acquired by learning new things not being mired in the old ways.

  2. I said it before, as a former commercial fisherman, if I were a setnetter I’d be howling at the moon to use shorter nets that would allow me more fishing time. With the very real plan and prospect of absolutely zero fishing time setnetters should be exploring any and every option that would allow them to get their nets wet, unless of course they are banking on a government disaster relief payment.

    • Traps require a change in state law. They were banned at statehood. And I would expect the still quite powerful United Fishermen of Alaska would oppose them over fear that Seattle-based processors would come to own a bunch of them.

  3. This article would seem more like journalism and less like a biased opinion piece if you had left out the term “gauntlet” to describe the drift gillnet fishery.

    • Well, it is tagged as commentary. But, even with that said, it doesn’t seem that over the top given the Cambridge Dictionary, in its definition, uses this example: “Every day they had to run the gauntlet of hostile journalists on their way to school.”

      In the case of Cook Inlet salmon, one could argue they face a lot worse challenge in that hundreds of thousands to millions of the fish end up dead every year.

    • The word gauntlet makes it biased opinion? What single word in its place would make it journalism? Gauntlet sure sounds a lot less biased than curtains of death.

  4. I agree with your assessment Craig. What better time than now to conduct such a study — ADF&G or whomever was selected to run a more definite shallow versus deep net study could have complete control of the variables — at a time when the setnet fishery is scheduled to be closed.

    Another source of information potentially pointing out that kings may swim deep and thus mostly under nets that do not extend all the way to the bottom is the lower king salmon catch by the drift gill net fishery that occurs further from shore in deeper water. Of course it could also be that most king salmon travel closer to shore where the drift gill net fishery does not fish much.

    • One of the reasons not to run a test is because of the possibility of everyone finding out something you already suspect, which will make it far more difficult to keep doing what you are doing today. Cheers –

    • When we ran the original study in 2013 we brought a troller over from Sitka to do the fishing in various areas of Cook Inlet. The troller was rigged to run 6 troll lines with 8 lures on each. We did catch both Kings and sockeye in lower Cook Inlet using this gear, but it quickly became apparent that the Kings were only hitting the lure right above the lead cannonball. So Kings were both present near bottom in deep water as well as in shallow waters (6-8′ depths) just off Anchor Point where the sport fishing boats mostly hung out. We ended up not catching many Kings in deeper water because the charter boat spent much of its time hauling up and releasing halibut, which were very frequently caught on that lowermost hook, making the whole process very inefficient for catching Kings!

      • So how effective was it for catching sockeye? Maybe the whole fishery could simply be transitioned into a troll fishery, which provides a very high-quality product and could put even more fishermen to work given its inherent inefficiency.

      • Interesting idea, Craig– there is a long, perverse tradition of government regulations being introduced worldwide to make the fishing industry less efficient rather than more efficient, so your suggestion would fit that approach. However, it seems just barely realistic–say there are 200 permit holders. For every million sockeye that return and must be harvested, each permit holder would have to catch 5,000 sockeye in about a 3 week season. Plausible, but if the required harvest was 2~3X that it likely wouldn’t be feasible using trolling. (I’m not sure how many active permit holders there currently are).

        A harder constraint is the way the sockeye migrate. In our own work in 2013 the sockeye came through in one sharp peak and then the vast majority were gone. Our tagging target wasn’t reached because our contract required us to apply an equal number of tags over the entire season and the fish came through in one pulse–but we didn’t know that until the peak was well past. Gear saturation would be much more of a problem for a troller than a gill net.

        I continue to think that an even more extreme version of Gary Hollier’s pioneering suggestion of using very shallow nets could be very successful… nets would be easier to work, and a much higher quality product would be produced if the nets were hauled frequently, and the fish bled and iced immediately. What’s not to like about producing a premium product?

        The key is to demonstrate to the regulators and the setnetters that (1) a more financially successful regulatory framework is possible; (2) it improves the setnetters’ operations; and (3) it can be proven that any new approach essentially eliminates King harvest. Apart from minor short-term upticks in King returns I am not holding much hope of a return to the abundant King returns of decades past because the same pattern of decline is seen coastwide. Global warming makes it virtually certain we will go to a substantially warmer world and even worse King numbers. Conserving Kings in that scenario means that the ESSN has to figure out how to reduce bycatch to essentially zero. Other fisheries have successfully done so. Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawlers had to develop “turtle excluders” to prevent sea turtles from ending up in the catch and drowning. Successful innovators survived and thrived. Those that refused to change went the way of the dodo. Survival of the fittest.

      • David: Couldn’t agree more with all of that, especially the part about adapting or dying. It’s the evolutionary process, and it applies to everything. Not just biology.

      • Sockeye aren’t big biters in the salt or fresh water. Even in the sport fishery in the salt or fresh water snagging is the only reliable way to catch them. Somewhere approaching 66% of the Sockeye caught on the Kenai River are snagged in or around the mouth, 33.99% are snagged in the body, and the remaining 0.01% are willful biters (These percentages are completely made up, but the point stands).

      • Those reflect my general and long-held feelings which is why I was surprised David W. mentioned some success in catching them with hook and line.

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