Setnetters protest closure


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He came to Kasilof to spend a summer setnetting. Instead Ashton Echols found himself strumming a banjo accompanying an impromptu protest outside of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices Wednesday in Soldotna.

The Utah resident joined about 20 Kasilof-area setnetters, friends and crew in protesting an extended closure of their season which has allowed them to fish for three days before facing permanent season closure due to extremely low numbers of Kenai River king salmon.

"I think it's important to know that there are real people making a living off of this," Echols said. "My captain and I are struggling to keep our heads above water. We've barely caught enough to pay for gas."

An emergency order closing the Kasilof and Kenai area portions of the east side setnet fishery sparked the protest which elicited repetitive honking and slowed traffic on Kalifornsky Beach Road for a few hours.

The overall din was barely muted in Pat Shield's office where setnetters had been streaming in since the possibility of a permanent season closure became one step closer to a reality with the release of Tuesday's emergency order.

Shields, an area biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game, had been talking for so long his voice was giving out by the end of the workday Wednesday.

"We're evaluating options that would perhaps allow setnetting to go back into the water," he said. "We don't have any solid plans yet; we're just beginning to look at options and evaluating options that setnetters bring to us."

Shields said he's had setnet fishermen suggesting options all day. While some of them were options the department could consider, others were outside of the department's authority.

Under the current management plan, the department has the authority to modify aspects of its plan with respect to time and area authority, meaning it can change certain times fishermen can fish and specify the area.

"Some of the things we can't do, unless the Board of Fisheries directly gives us that authority, is to modify gear. So the department can't go to a setnet permit holder and say, 'You're only going to get one net per permit now instead of three,'" Shields said.

This means fishing setnetters with fewer nets, ostensibly lowering their chinook salmon harvest while still allowing for sockeye harvest, does not fall under the department's area of authority, Shields said.

"Some setnetters have asked for us to go out and close parts of the drift gillnet area and let setnetting in there," he said. "That is an option we're looking at but (that may be) an allocative decision. The department isn't supposed to allocate, decide who gets to harvest the fish. That's what the Board of Fisheries does."

Unlike other commercial fisheries in the state, the Cook Inlet commercial fishing groups are allocated geographic areas to fish rather than a specific number of fish to harvest.

"So, in this case we would be taking some of the allocation in area to the drifters and providing that to the setnetters, that's what we've been asked to look at and that's one of the things we'll review," Shields said. "It perhaps is beyond our legal authority to do so."

According to Fish and Game estimates as of Tuesday, 497,888 sockeye salmon have made it into the Kenai River and 161,934 have been counted in the Kasilof River.

Shields said he'd been asked several times how many sockeye would have to make it into the Kenai River above what the department's maximum escapement goal is to allow the setnetters to reopen and catch the excess fish.

"The department has not come up with a specific number yet," he said. "We've just said that there will be a point, if sockeye salmon escapements increase beyond the goal, there will come a point at which we may say -- may say, that's the key -- that's too many sockeye. We'll let the setnetters out and let them kill some kings even though we're in king conservation mode."

The escapement goal in the Kenai River for sockeye salmon is between 1 million and 1.2 million sockeye. If the run size increases to more than 4.6 million total sockeye, then the upper end of the escapement goal changes to 1.35 million, Shields said.

"It would occur in the latter part of July or perhaps in August, we would have to look at it. First of all, where are we at in king salmon? How many king salmon have we saved in the interim? Are we getting close to the lower end of that objective," he said. "The way I understand it is the further we are from the king salmon minimum objective the further we are away from that, the higher we're going to be willing to live with the sockeye. It's not something we're willfully wanting to happen, but we'll live with it."

In the meantime Shields said his division would be using one of the only tools it has at its disposal, the drift fleet.

"We will fish really aggressively with the drift gillnetting group. We've begun to ramp up their fishing time," he said. "To control Kenai and Kasilof sockeye, that's the main, really the only, gear group we have."

While the commercial division tries to find ways to reopen the fishery without causing further damage to the fragile king salmon stock, fishermen in Kasilof said they are suffering more than they ever have before.

According to Fish and Game's fish count website, 90 chinook salmon were estimated to have been caught by commercial setnet operations. While the Kasilof area setnetters have had three fishing periods, the Kenai River portion of the fishery has been open for one fishing period.

In river, sport fishermen have seen their chinook harvesting season closed during the late run for the first time ever.

"The few days we did get to fish there's not much around so we didn't do that good," said Tim Osmar, a Kasilof area setnetter whose nine nets are set up near Humpy Point.

"I've been doing this for 45 years and it's never been like this," he said. "I've caught 100 fish in nine nets in three days."

The two people he has on his crew have been working at the dock pitching fish coming in from the driftnet fleet, Osmar said.

"They'll make a few bucks," he said. "Enough to fly home anyway."

Making it home has been at the top of Echols' mind.

"I'll have to hitchhike," he said. "I love coming up here, it was a way for me to make money and enjoy what I'm doing. I'm not just some random dude off the street. I spent over $2,000 to get up here."

Osmar said the closure on the setnet fishery affected several hundred families and he wasn't sure he would be able to continue operating his nets.

We are way in debt. Probably $10,000 down. Every season starts in the hole, you have to spend money to get set up," he said. "The first day of fishing pays the debt down, the next few pay the crew and after that you may make a few dollars for the year."

For now, Osmar said, he'd continue to protest in an attempt to be heard by the people he thinks can change the season for him.

"We don't have anything better to do than stand outside and protest," he said.

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