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.”
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 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.