Saving kings

An illustration of how Cook Inlet commercial salmon setnets might be modified to reduce catches of troubled king salmon/Kintama Research Services


Fishing gear mod undergoing serious study

A news analysis

With the commercial salmon setnet fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet closed for the season to protect the small number of Chinook salmon expected to return to the Kenai River this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is sponsoring a first-of-its-kind, in-depth investigation into whether that fishery can be modified to fish clean.

In the lexicon of fisheries lingo, clean fisheries are those that focus their harvest on “target” species as opposed to anything that might happen to get trapped, snagged or entangled in commercial netting, be that gear in the form of a gillnet or a trawl.

How to reduce the so-called “bycatch” of non-target species in various commercial net fisheries has been a subject of discussion and study for fisheries scientists around the world for decades. And there are those who have come to believe that it might be possible to fix the problem in the Inlet by employing shallower nets in the setnet fishery.

Setnetter Gary Hollier has long been of the opinion that shallower nets allow deep-swimming kings, as Alaskans commonly refer to the largest of the Pacific salmon, to slip safely beneath the gill-snagging monofilament mesh while sockeyes traveling closer to the surface are still ensnared in large numbers.

And a 2017 study by Kintama Research Services – a company based in British Columbia, Canada – suggested that Hollier was onto something.

Since then, the state Board of Fisheries has repeatedly tried to encourage and coerce setnetters into shifting to shallower nets, but their cooperation has been limited with many clinging to the belief that shallower nets will significantly reduce their catches of salmon.

Against this backdrop, Fish and Game has now contracted with Kintama to this summer undertake a full-fledged study, coupled to an experimental fishery, to determine whether kings will indeed make it under shallower nets and what the sockeye harvests from those nets might look like.

It is hoped that Kintama’s David Welch, who has built a global reputation for being able to track the movements of fish in marine waters, can answer once and for all the question of whether shallower nets can provide a path out of a biological and political quagmire that has plagued the Inlet for decades.

The good old days in the Cook Inlet setnet fishery/Anonymous

Constant battles

Political “fish wars” have now raged for more than 50 years between the 1,200 or so commercial fishermen who once largely had the fisheries of the Inlet to themselves and sport-fishing interests that in the 1970s began to develop increasingly efficient techniques for catching world-record-size Chinook in the turbid, glacially fed Kenai River.

Over the years that followed, the rod-and-reel fishery in the river grew into a valuable tourism industry that boomed into the new millennium, fueled in part by the 1985 catch of a 97-pound, 4-ouche; world-record king. 

The in-river fishery for kings started to fade in the early 2000s, however, had shrunk to nearly half its size by 2015, and is now all but dead apparently due in part to ocean conditions that have sparked a North Pacific-wide decline in Chinook salmon abundance.

But the memories of the days of bounty remain, and there are many who would like to see Kenai king runs of yesteryear restored.

That can’t happen unless spawning goals are met, which is the reason the setnet fishery with its history of king salmon bycatch was this year closed before it even began.

After four consecutive years of failing to meet the minimum spawning goal of 15,000 large, late-run Kenai kings, and with fewer than 14,000 of those fish forecast to return this year, the state in March announced there would be no in-river, rod-and-reel season for kings.

Shortly thereafter came the announcement that the setnet fishery, which targets sockeye salmon but has a large king salmon bycatch, would also be closed.

Setnet catches of kings have fallen to a third or less of historic numbers in recent years, but advocates for the Kenai’s fading Chinooks have questioned the accuracy of those reports, arguing it would only make good business sense for setnetters to roll dead kings out of their nets and back into the Inlet to try and minimize the king catch and keep the fishery fishing.

There are hard feelings on both sides of this issue with anglers and Kenai guides accusing setnetters of stringing a “curtain of death” along the Kenai coast, and commercial fishermen regularly trooping into to court, as they did last year, to claim state officials are bowing to political pressure from the sporting crowd who want to deny them the “economic security” written into the state’s limited entry law by “continuing to unfairly and unlawfully allocate Upper Cook Inlet salmon to the personal, sport, and sport-guided fishing interests to the detriment of commercial fishermen, and continuing to impose arbitrary, capricious, unlawful, and unjustified gear, set back, and other restrictions on set net fishermen as well as arbitrary restrictions on the drift net fishermen.”

The limited entry law allowed the state to restrict the number of permits available to commercial fishermen. It was enacted after Alaska voters approved an amendment to the state constitution’s “common property” clause that had kept the commercial fisheries open to anyone who wanted to buy the gear and give the business a try.

Though the law made it very clear that “an entry permit constitutes a use privilege that may be modified or revoked by the legislature without compensation,” many fishermen – and especially some of those fishermen who paid significant sums of money to buy permits from the fishermen the state originally gave permits for free – have come to view the permits as an entitlement.

There is a widespread agreement too many permits were issued for Cook Inlet fishery when the program was put in place, but there was no plan set up at the time for reducing permits numbers in the future if that proved the case.

A few of the permit holders also think they should be allowed to catch as many kings as they can because that is the way it has long been in the commercial fishery, and because kings are the most valuable fish in the state.

Kings caught in the Inlet in 2021 netted commercial fishermen an average of $4.43 per pound, according to state data, almost $2.50 more than the average sockeye was worth at the dock that year.

Still, when the choice is to stop catching kings or stop fishing altogether, one might expect setnetters to embrace the latter plan allowing them to keep fishing for far more plentiful sockeyes, but not all do.

Some appear to want to push the blame away from the nets in the Inlet, and place it upon the industrial-scale trawl fisheries, many of them based in the state of Washington, that drag even bigger nets around in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

The high-profile bycatch

Newly elected Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat from the regional hub of Bethel in Southwest Alaska, has been working hard to convince the world that a Chinook decline all across Alaska is the fault of trawl bycatch.

With Chinook returns to Bethel’s Kuskokwim River almost as weak as those in the Kenai, and Chinook returns to the Yukon River to the north of Bethel a disaster, the pitch plays well to her hometown voters and many others across the state.

And Peltola has managed to enlist Politico, a national reporting website to her side, though there is no scientific evidence the trawl bycatch is the reason for the decline in Chinook in the Yukon, Kuskokwim or other Alaska rivers.

Trawlers do catch large volumes of non-target species while annually hauling in 3 to 5 billion pounds of groundfish, according to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the federal entity overseeing these offshore fisheries. 

But compared to the massive size of the trawl catch – it represents about 50 percent of the fishery harvest for the entire United States – the bycatch, especially of salmon, is tiny.

“By comparing the adult equivalent numbers with the run size of fish returning to the various river systems, scientists can…estimate the impacts of salmon bycatch on the runs in the different regions,” according to the Council. “In all but the highest years (for example, 2007), Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea is less than 3 percent and chum salmon bycatch is less than 1 percent of the total returns to coastal Western Alaska Rivers.”

The east-side setnet salmon fishery in Cook Inlet 80 to 100 miles southwest of Anchorage has historically taken a far bigger bite out of Chinook returns to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, but as noted above, that reported harvest has fallen in recent years.

The latest report from the state put the average harvest from 2014 to 2019 at about 8 percent of the total average Chinook run, and the set net fishery – like the trawl fishery – is clearly not to blame for the fall in Kenai king numbers even if its reported rate of Chinook bycatch in the setnets is about three times bigger or more than that of the trawlers in the Bering Sea.

There are other factors at play, most notably warmer ocean waters which appear to favor pink salmon, the smallest of the species, and possibly Alaska’s industrial-scale salmon ranching funded and operated by commercial fishermen, which has helped push pink salmon abundance to numbers never seen in recorded human history.

It should be noted here, too, that the closure of the setnet fishery is not a closure of commercial salmon fishing in the Inlet. The commercial driftnet fishery has been allowed to continue fishing because it fishes much cleaner.

The drift fishery, on average, now catches fewer than 400 kings per year, according to state numbers, while netting sockeye salmon by the hundreds of thousands.

A weak run of sockeye to the Inlet last year still resulted in a “drift gillnet harvest” of “893,743 sockeye salmon, which was 22 percent less than the previous 10-year average harvest of 1.15 million fish,” according to Fish and Game. 

Sockeye are the money fish for the Inlet’s commercial fishermen, given their abundance and their relatively high value.  But they are taken from a huge mixed stock of salmon migrating through the Inlet that makes it virtually impossible for any fishery to operate without some bycatch.

Still, the drift fleet catches kings at about a twentieth of the rate of the setnet fishery, according to the state data.

The thinking among biologists has long been that this is because the fishermen who deploy gillnets from behind boats offshore, rather than using nets anchored to the ocean bed in nearshore areas, are fishing in deeper water where kings swim safely beneath the nets.

This helped drive the interest in getting setnets up off the bottom to ensure the passage of kings, something the 2017 study indicated was likely. But the data collected that year was limited – more a snapshot of the setnet fishery than a movie – and setnetters were suspicious of the findings because of the study’s funding source, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage.

The Mat-Su Borough has for years had issues with the commercial fisheries in the Inlet because Borough rivers at the head of the 180-mile-long finger of the Pacific that juts into Alaska’s urban underbelly are last in line for returning salmon. Borough fisheries in the drainages of the Susitna, Yentna, Matanuska and Knik rivers often end up getting the scraps of returns feasted on my commercial fisheries in marine waters to the west.

In the case of the setnetters, however, the Borough’s interest appeared largely in trying to find a way to make the fishery fish cleaner so it could fish more, the reason for this being simple.

What most irritates the tourism-linked, sportfishing businesses in the Borough is the driftnet fishery which sometimes appears to target coho salmon or what Alaskans  commonly call “silvers.”

These are the salmon most desired in Borough streams in July and August, and though commercial drifters claim to be trying to avoid large bycatches of coho while fishing for sockeye, it hasn’t always looked like they are trying very hard.

On occasion, daily catches of coho have outnumbered catches of sockeye in the drift fishery, and anglers inherently suspicious of commercial fishermen sometimes see a reason why: economics.

Statewide prices for coho have sometimes topped those paid for sockeye, according to Fish and Game data, though this has never been reported to be the case with average coho prices in the Inlet.

That said, prices paid for commercial salmon in Alaska are highly variable and can fluctuate widely through the season depending on the size and condition of the fish.

And whatever the case with prices, it would be in the interest of the Mat-Su Borough to maximize the Inlet setnet catch, which is almost wholly focused on sockeye returning to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers of the Kenai Peninsula.

Those two rivers are the biggest sockeye producers in the region. The more sockeyes setnetters can harvest along the beaches near the mouths of those rivers, the less need for heavy fishing with driftnets in the Inlet.

The less driftnetting in the Inlet, the more silver salmon escaping into the rivers and streams at the head of the Inlet. Shallower nets, if they are proven to work, would be a win for the Mat-Su, a win for Inlet setnetters (whether they recognize that or not), and a win for fishery management.

It is generally considered a best management practice in salmon fisheries to focus harvests on discrete rather than mixed stocks if possible.

As fisheries researchers have noted, the more control fishery managers have over “individual stocks” the greater their ability to prevent overfishing or, in some cases, underfishing – which has been a major and legitimate concern of commercial fishermen who’ve sometimes watched tens of thousands of sockeye in excess of spawning needs make their way up Kenai rivers because fishery managers were trying to prevent the overharvest of kings.

This is the dreaded over-escapement that can leave some commercial fishermen shaking in anger.  Kenai River sockeye over-escaped, as it is said,  to the tune of 500,000 or more in 2021, and the Kasilof was that year more than a150,000 sockeye over its upper goal. 

With sockeye worth an average of $1.95 per pound in 2021, those 650,000 fish represented the loss of about $1.27 million in potential earnings for commercial fishermen.

Fish traps, which can catch and hold sockeyes while allowing kings to pass, would be the ultimate solution to this problem of over-escapement and lost economic value, but they were banned in Alaska at statehood because Alaskans didn’t like the fact most were controlled by outside business interests.

Shallower nets – if they actually prove capable of maintaining sockeye harvest levels while reducing king salmon bycatch – could prove an excellent alternative to the traps. of old. But it all depends on whether what has been up to now a theory proves a reality in practice.

Time will tell.










Categories: News, Outdoors

15 replies »

  1. I will give you the results of the shallow test nets. Less kings were caught. Why? Because there are less kings. This study should have been done when the Kenai king runs were 40k+.

    • That’s certainly probable. When there are fewer kings, the ratio of Chinook caught per sockeye in the ESSN should go down. But that doesn’t discount the possibility of it going down even farther with shallower nets. You know, before Ken Tarbox died, he and I had a long chat about this, and he blamed “The Department” for not solving the problem, which was kind of weird given he was sort of “The Department.”

      But he pretty much believed the problem of bycatch could be greatly reduced by dumping the regular fishing periods, and just fishing the ESSN for a couple hours either side of high tides, which basically just means you get the nets up of the bottom as with shallower nets.

      • Did Ken ever suggest to you that another method of reducing “bycatch” as you call it, would be to allow the setnet fleet to fish when observations are that the fish are on the beach, which would increase sockeye harvests in a shorter amount of time that nets are in the water,rather than the current managemant plans of set dates and times and windows,set in stone in january in at the captain cook hotel, with little to no regard to run timing, strength, weather,etc.?

      • OK, let’s get one thing straight here. This is bycatch because if it’s not we’ve got a real problem that should keep the ESSN fishery closed until there is a forecast escapement of late-run Kenai Chinook above the escapement goal + the small drift harvest.

        We talked about a lot of things, including looking through fish tickets to try to identify setnet sights that remove a disproportion number of Chinook to sockeye and simply shutting down those sights or identifying tidal conditions in which they don’t catch a lot of kings and only letting them fishing at times when tides correlate.

        We didn’t, however talk about dates and times becuase those Monday and Thursday seem to be sort of set in stone. I’ve never heard an ESSNer suggest changing them. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a proposal to the Board of Fish to link periods to tide to get more water under the nets either now that I think about it.

        Nor has there been any experimentation with cleaner commercial fisheries to catch those sockeyes.

      • Thanks for keeping me in the conversation loop on this Craig. Parsing out performance details of super shallow gear with Dean a couple of days ago, he stated that nets flagged so much when the tide was running strongly they don’t fish much of a depth. Being a drifter, I didn’t run into that. I’ll have to run that idea by him of openers on the high tides only.

        Hey, I was filmed with my 73 Iditarod sled for Antiques Roadshow today, chosen from over a thousand entrant apps. Mine and Dan Seavey’s “Old Oak” (now in the Seward Museum) are the only extant sleds from the founding race. Mine was beat up by Alan on his trapline, his son wrecked it almost totally, and it just lay out in the weather for years and years. Alan and my friend Cliff Sisson rehabbed it enough to hold together as a museum piece a couple of winters back. It was a huge hit with the AR folks.

        Man, you wouldn’t believe what the guy brought who was sitting at my table–he is Harry Karstens’ (the Seventy-Mile Kid) great grandson who had Karsten’s ice axe that went to the top with himself, Stuck and Harper. He brought also a Klondike claims map showing Harry’s claim on Henderson Cr. next to Jack London’s. He showed me a posed picture taken in the 40s in FBX featuring Karstens, Brad Washburn, Charlie McGonnigal and another of the “Sourdoughs” and the fifth guy in the pic I think was probably another of Sourdough climbers. The great-great, a boy of 12 or so, was there with his dad. I should have held the axe, gone home and washed my hands, and saved the water in a special bottle.

      • Kings don’t necessarily run the bottom of whatever water way they are in . It almost seems more to do with actual depth of travel regardless of bottom at least when near rivers or in them. Not sure about copper. Do kings act differently in different waterways?
        When using larger nets I usually caught kings lower in nets. Reds in top of net / they are jumpers.
        The absolute largest king i ever caught- 100# range was in the bottom corner of last few mesh of my net .
        For whatever personal experience is worth.
        I think supra shallow nets would still catch majority of reds and very very few kings .
        Super shallow means 5’ or less . Its a thought. Maybe even less would work?
        If time efficiency is a problem then allow longer nets to compensate. Its a thought .
        Maybe combining with max qoates and allow low boats to fish longer into season. ( low meaning low catch in relation to others)

      • We’ll find out. And the latter is exactly the idea. If shorter nets do catch significantly lower numbers of kings, any loss in sockeye harvest capacity can be added by increasing fishing hours. There are advantages for almost everyone in that scenario, but some ESSNers are opposed to anything new.

  2. Yep, it’s a different time all right. Today Alaska regulations are more susceptible to being changed by mass media and the voter initiative process than in the 70’s. The commercial salmon industry would be no match for Alaskan inriver fish gathers and Preservations once a lift the ban on fish traps initiative got on the ballot.

  3. Good to hear of this shallow net study by a group I hope all sides can believe in. Not that I claim great expertise, but as I gained my degree in wildlife management, I neared a minor in fisheries. That, along with many years as a Bristol Bay permit holder, has given me some ideas regarding saving kings while preserving the Eastside setnet red fishery.

    In my heart of hearts, I love sport fishing most, and want to see king bycatch minimized. That combines with recent frustration of watching in particular, last year’s Kasilof reds nearly triple escapement goals while setnetters were forced to sit idle,

    Something I wonder is how many king redds are dug up by later sockeye spawning. I recall one year of a tremendous over escapement in one Bristol Bay drainage, a friend reporting dug up eggs “a foot deep” in every still pool of a little Illiamna area tributary.

    In some early June emails to friends, I expressed these ideas:

    It might be to SPORT fishermen’s best interest to push for study of whether king redds destroyed by trailing sockeye spawning is significant. That might lead rod ‘n reelers to get behind promotion of some kind of gillnet fishery that goes all out to avoid kings by limiting sockeye over-escapement. Sport fishermen getting behind setnetting to save the kings would be quite a switch indeed!

    Eastside setnet depths have already been mandated reduced once or twice in recent years. The idea I ran by friends was that this idle Eastside summer would be a perfect time for some exhaustive research on what further net depth reduction it would take to virtually eliminate king by-catch.
    When a reduced net depth is found, make it up to fishermens’ economy and fishery managers’ catch vs escapement goals, to lengthen open fishing periods and net length.

    • There’s surprisingly little overlap between Chinook and sockeye spawning in the Kenai, according to the research. The bulk of the former spawn downstream from Skilak Lake and mainly down from the Moose. Sockeye spawning is heavy in a few miles of river below Skilak, but most of it is upstream from Skilak. Chinook also tend to spawn in deeper water than sockeye and bury their eggs deeper, so it’s doubtful sockeye do the big fish much damage.

      As to fishing periods, there is a lot to be said in terms of quality for more periods to make up for any lost of sockeye harvest power with shallower nets – if, of course, those nets are found to let kings pass. A steady flow of fish into a processing plant is a lot better than gobs and lulls.

      • Thanks for that good info I lacked regarding degree of red-king redd overlap. I had asked a couple of old ADF&G Wildlife Div. friends, but being Warm Fuzzies, not Cold Slimies, they didn’t have any more idea than I did.

  4. Nothing the legislature passes is carved in stone. They can bring back the fish trap. Not only would that lower the carbon footprint of gathering ocean run salmon it would be simple to monitor the harvest electronically. That they couldn’t do inexpensively back in the 50’s. Call your representative to introduce a bill.

  5. My broken record solution: Fish Traps. And yes, allocation is a problem however loss of Kings and other salmon species in various rivers is a graver issue.

    • You’re too old. Were this this happening in the late1970s in an Alaska with a different political climate and a preceding annual Cook Inlet sockeyes harvets down below 1 million per year total, I could imagine the Legislature talking about lifting the trap ban and putting a state trap in the Kenai to control escapement with the profits from that trap going into the Permanent Fund.

      But we’re ina way different time and place now than we were then.

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