Elizabeth Earl

Ocean conditions throw uncertainty into salmon forecast

KENAI — After last year’s disastrously low pink salmon runs to drainages all across the Gulf of Alaska, the forecasts offer a little more hope for the 2017 season. Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers in Southeast are predicting a strong pink year, with 43 million fish set to return, slightly greater than the recent 10-year average of 39 million fish. The forecast is high in Kodiak as well, with mangers predicting a total run of about 28.1 million fish between the wild and hatchery-augmented runs, though the confidence is only fair because runs are naturally variable and environmental conditions are unpredictable. In Prince William Sound, managers predict a total run of about 21 million fish, with a harvest estimate of 19.6 million salmon, according to the forecast. Biologists are also predicting a run of approximately 371,000 chum salmon and 74,000 sockeye. If the forecast plays out accurately, it would be welcome news to commercial fishermen all across the Gulf of Alaska. Pink salmon returns were so dismal in 2016 that Gov. Bill Walker asked for and was granted a federal disaster designation, which opened up the potential for funds to be appropriated in Congress for relief. It’s not clear why the pink salmon returns were so much below average, but ADFG’s forecast puts a large part of the blame for uncertainty on anomalously warm sea surface temperatures for the past three years in the North Pacific, colloquially called the blob. “Pink salmon that went to sea in 2014 and 2015 returned in numbers well below expectation and pink salmon that went to sea in 2016 (and set to return in 2017) may have experienced similar conditions,” the forecast states. Every forecast has its uncertainties, but last year’s moderate forecast and poor returns have lent skepticism. Kodiak commercial fisheries area management biologist James Jackson said the managers were moderately confident in the forecast, but ocean conditions are unpredictable and forecasts are best estimates. “I would say we’re moderately confident,” he said. “It really comes down to the fact that when you have such extreme variations in climate that we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s really had to have a predictable model. That ‘s why we have in-season management.” The stars seem to be aligned for Kodiak to have a good pink return this year. It’s an odd year, which is high for Kodiak — pink salmon have a two-year life cycle, so harvests tend to pitch from high to low depending on the area — and the area’s hatchery on Afognak Island is set to have its five-year high return as well, Jackson said. Kodiak is a complex area with multiple management plans and gear types. The management plans start out the season with regular weekly fishing periods that can be changed based on the salmon forecast. As with any fishery, the managers will evaluate the run and decide how to prosecute the fishery if the returns don’t live up to the forecast. That’s what happened last year — as it became clear the forecast was going to come in low, the managers closed the pink salmon fishery. In 2015, the total harvest of pink salmon was more than 33 million pinks. In 2016, it came in at about 3.2 million, or about a tenth of the previous year. The run in 2014 was weaker and early, while 2015’s run was large and late. Many of the streams missed their pink salmon escapements for the first time in decades, Jackson said. All told, the Kodiak pink salmon return was one of the worst since the 1970s. “It was fairly obvious from the get-go that the forecast was wrong,” he said. In Lower Cook Inlet, 2015 was a record-breaking year for pink salmon. Last summer was the area’s low cycle, and given the high returns in previous years, 2017 should be set to break more records, but the forecast doesn’t look that way, said commercial fisheries area management biologist Glenn Hollowell. “The forecasts don’t look rosy enough in comparison to the odd-year pink returns we’ve been getting,” he said. Lower Cook Inlet is expecting a pink salmon return of about 1.29 million fish, with an expected commercial harvest of about 777,000 fish. That is significantly less than the 2015 harvest, when the seiners in Lower Cook Inlet alone harvested nearly 4.5 million pinks, not counting other gear types. Lower Cook Inlet has a hatchery component as well, with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association getting its Tutka Bay and Port Graham hatcheries operating to produce pink salmon. That should have pushed up the forecast further as well, but it’s only moderate, Hollowell said. With ocean conditions hard to predict and a precedent of a good forecast turned sour, the managers aren’t entirely sure what to expect. With the colder winter this year, sending near-shore conditions more toward normal for Alaska, the mass of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska may be beginning to dissipate, but stream production depends on snowmelt runoff to the rivers as well. Stream production varies on water level each year, and if water levels are lower, then the streams can produce fewer salmon than in higher water years, Hollowell said. “This is an interesting year,” Hollowell said. “It’s a year when we might diverge significantly from what we’ve forecast.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

UAF says ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Kenai salmon research offer

KENAI — The University of Alaska Fairbanks turned down an offer for funding for research on Kenai River king salmon because it would only come from one side of Cook Inlet’s allocation war. The university’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, consistently recognized as one of the top fisheries research institutes in the country, regularly conducts studies on fish populations around the state. Funding comes from a variety of sources, both industry and from the university’s budget. However, after discussing potential funding for king salmon research from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the university decided not to take the funding because it couldn’t get buy-in from the commercial fishing side as well, according to a March 2 letter from interim chancellor Dana Thomas addressed to Kenai River Sportfishing Association board member and founder Bob Penney. “The UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences feels that it would not be helpful to carry out research on salmon in the Kenai area without a cooperative effort supported by both commercial and sport fishery interests,” the letter states. “Their view is that commercial fishers will not have confidence in research which is financially supported solely by those who have been strong advocates for sport fishing.” Without funding from both commercial and sport interests, the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty didn’t want to expend resources when it would be “unlikely to lead to a productive result,” the letter states. Thomas said in an interview that cooperative funding between industry interest groups is a model the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has found useful in determining research projects, and the faculty had hoped to get there with the Kenai project. The model provides mechanisms for peer review as well, which sets a high standard for scientific research, and provides convincing evidence for management boards to make decisions, he said. “This particular approach is a little unique to this college and they’ve used it in a variety of settings,” he said. “It has served them well for both sides … in dealing with controversial issues.” Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, a Soldotna-based sportfishing and conservation advocacy organization that funds projects and research, discussed some basic ideas for king salmon research with the university last summer, said executive director Ricky Gease. Since the dramatic decline of the king salmon runs hit a low in 2012, many questions have come up about the ocean conditions affecting king salmon production and returns. KRSA didn’t have a specific plan but provided ideas for potential research, such as marine factors affecting king salmon run timing and run size or sportfishing angler and economic impact surveys, he said. He said the university’s refusal of the funding was likely a function of shrinking budgets. “I think in this era of budget cuts, I think they were doing their due diligence in trying to reach out to different communities around the state to see if there were partnerships out there,” he said. The university doesn’t direct faculty research, and ultimately it was the faculty members’ decision not to take up the project, though he did have conversations with them about the project, he said. The university had hoped for a partnership to be formed in the area among user groups to fund research that would “ensure separation of the goals of individual organizations from impartial scientific research that would inform the best possible management and policy decisions,” the letter states. However, the commercial fishing organizations declined a partnership, according to the letter. The specific commercial fishing organization that handled it was the Alaska Salmon Alliance, an organization representing primarily processors and commercial fishermen in the Cook Inlet area. Though the organization’s board has considered funding research and is open to the idea of collaborating between user groups as long as the research benefits both, the board chose to turn the university’s request down, said Alaska Salmon Alliance board member Paul Dale. “It looked to us as though (the Kenai River Sportfishing Association) had already selected some topics that would seem to be, shall we say, more beneficial to KRSA than to the commercial fish industry,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that was our impression. We as a group decided to pass on that opportunity ultimately.” It’s common practice for industry to fund research elsewhere in the state. The Alaska pollock industry funds research through the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, dispensing funds for research through a board with representatives from several stakeholders. Crabbers in the Bering Sea also fund studies through the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. But in the past, much of the research in Cook Inlet has been done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, federal agencies or nonprofits, without direct funding or approval by the industry. With a still-gaping budget deficit at the state level, ADFG’s research budget isn’t likely to grow in the future, and funding at all levels of the state government is subject to cuts as the Legislature attempts to reduce the budget deficit. Federal research may also be on the rocks under President Donald Trump’s administration recently proposed a budget that would trim funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages fisheries in federal waters through the National Marine Fisheries Service. In Cook Inlet, commercial fishing industry members are interested in collaborating to provide more funding in the future if the focus of the research benefits both groups, Dale said. “There were some interesting funding mechanisms in the proposal that intrigued me, and it would be great if we could reduce some of the allocation frictions,” he said. Fishing stakeholders may have to step up and take the reins on funding research if they want the important baseline work to go forward as well as research with more direct management applications, Gease said. ADFG’s research tends to be more oriented toward freshwater research and achieving escapement goals, and marine factors tend to be underrepresented in salmon research and management, he said. “If we could have more data sources from the marine environment and figure out how to incorporate that into the run timing or the size of the return, it would help all fisheries out,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stakeholders of all types leave Cook Inlet meeting unsatisfied

KENAI — The Board of Fisheries wrapped up its Upper Cook Inlet meeting with few changes for the inlet’s commercial drift gillnet fleet, with small gains possible for the drifters and disagreements between the sport and commercial users left intact. The drift gillnet fleet in Upper Cook Inlet, composed of about 570 limited-entry permit holders, wanted the Board of Fisheries to dismantle some of the regulations that have been enacted over the years restricting their fishing time and area. They argue that the restrictions make the fleet inefficient and tie the hands of the managers to allow commercial fishermen to harvest surplus salmon returning in any given year. On the other hand, sportfishermen from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley argued for the restrictions to remain in place, saying they allow depleted northern Cook Inlet stocks to rebound. Allowing the drift fleet to fish in the entire Inlet and giving them more time would lead to further interception of northern-bound stocks, they argued. In reality, the board only changed three main things relating to the drift fleet. They added the potential for one inlet-wide fishing period in the second half of July if the sockeye salmon run to the Kenai River is projected to come in between 2.3 million and 4.6 million fish, dropped the optimum escapement goal for Kenai River sockeye and moved back the date for the 1 percent rule for setnetters in August, which also affects the drift gillnet fleet. No one felt the changes were significant. But while the drifters saw them as minor concessions after years of losing time and area, Mat-Su advocates said the changes were small steps in the wrong direction. “Conservation is not the issue,” said Erik Huebsch, the vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Production is the issue.” The drifters have long held that sending more fish into the northern streams won’t do any good to rebuild stocks because of poor habitat conditions and predation by invasive northern pike. Pike prey on juvenile salmonids and are now documented extensively in lakes across the Mat-Su Valley. Additionally, an extensive infestation of elodea — an invasive water weed that can choke out oxygen in lakes — was documented in Alexander Lake, one of the larger lakes in the valley. The population growth in the valley also damages habitat, as roads have been placed across streams with insufficient culverts that don’t allow fish to pass through. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has been trying to address the habitat issues by replacing culverts and putting up public education signs, but until there are meaningful efforts to address the pike, putting more fish into the system is just feeding the pike, Huebsch said. What’s more, the Inlet-wide period only goes into effect during years of very large sockeye runs, and it only a “may” rather than a “shall” in the code, leaving it up to the manager’s discretion. This year, the sockeye run is predicted to be less than 2.3 million, meaning the inlet-wide period won’t come into play unless the run comes in above the forecast. “We didn’t change a thing,” said UCDA President Dave Martin. “We’re still not going to be able to harvest the surplus.” At the other end of the Inlet, the Mat-Su Valley has been seeing declining escapements for a number of years and tight restrictions on sportfishing time and areas within the drainage. Three years ago, when the drifters were restricted out of the center of the Inlet to allow for a corridor to allow fish to pass north, Mat-Su fishermen said it would help rebuild stocks. The corridor is still in place, but with the drifters getting the potential for an extra period, it has been weakened, said Mack Minard, a fisheries consultant for the Mat-Su Borough. The residents wanted the corridor to remain in place for at least one full life cycle, or about six years, he said. “I think it was sort of unfortunate because virtually every action the board took, although individually small, were cumulatively in the wrong direction in terms of conserving king and coho and sockeye salmon in the Northern District,” he said. The board rejected a proposal to set optimum escapement goals for the three indicator lakes — Judd, Larson and Chelatna, which are the only lakes with weirs in the Susitna River drainage — and also moved back the date for the 1 percent rule for setnetters in August. In the past, when both the Kenai and Kasilof sections of the setnet fishery were closed by the one percent rule, the drifters were moved to the West Side of the Inlet. Ultimately, the managers should move from a mixed-stock management approach to a terminal fishery approach, which allows for more stock-specific targeting, he said. Bristol Bay managers have done it for some time, and though it constricts fishermen to specific areas, it can help preserve weaker stocks. “I think it will take a generational change,” he said. “It will take a manager who will embrace the idea and a board that has the political will to implement it. And the day we do that is the day we begin to help northern district stocks recover.” The valley does have habitat issues; the systems are not as productive as the Kenai and Kasilof, which have multiple large, deep lakes, which provide perfect sockeye rearing habitat. The Mat-Su Valley doesn’t have many deep lakes like that, and most sockeye spawn in non-lake habitats, said Larry Engel, a member of the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission. “The sockeye are spawning in environments that aren’t stable,” he said. “They’re subject to huge changes every year … these kind of sockeye are not as productive, anywhere close to what a large stable Bristol Bay or Kenai can produce. That’s a huge difference, just naturally, than any other type of environment.” Pike, warm water and urbanization are problems — no one is denying that, Engel said. However, before any people lived in the valley, the systems still produced fewer fish per spawner than the Kenai and Kasilof because of the nature of the water systems, he said. That’s why the Mat-Su advocates argue for additional escapement. The board’s actions to provide additional opportunity for the drift fleet weren’t major, but the Mat-Su Valley advocates would have liked for nothing to change, he said. “Our position was to leave the Central Distict drift management plan, the corridor, unchanged, to let it work for a few years, and basically that’s what the board did with minor exceptions,” he said. “… We wish the plan had stayed intact, but the change that did occur wasn’t a significant change to the rationale and basis for the plan. I guess you could say that we’re pleased that not much changed, but we wish nothing had. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

On Kenai dipnet, a call for cooperation

Although people debate the value of the Kenai and Kasilof personal-use dipnet fisheries, they all find at least one thing that could be or is an issue with them. The two fisheries, which take place each summer at the mouth of each river, allow Alaskans a shot at some of the hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon that return there in June and July. The Kenai River dipnet fishery is the most popular of its kind in the state, with more than 30,000 fishing days every year since 2011, to fish from boats and from the beaches and banks downstream of the Warren Ames Bridge. The Kasilof fishery, which is slightly less popular and boasts smaller sockeye runs, registers approximately 10,000 fishing days regularly. The problem is that there’s no clear plan to deal with the continual growth of the fishery. The city of Kenai bears the brunt of enforcement, cleanup and infrastructure costs for the Kenai dipnet, running up a bill of approximately $589,000 in 2016, according to the city’s fiscal year 2017 dipnet report. On the Kasilof, the Alaska State Wildlife Troopers provide some enforcement on the beach, but cannot constantly patrol, and the state has to front the cost for portable toilets and cleanup. On March 5, the Board of Fisheries voted to close long sections of the Kenai River’s banks to shore-based dipnetting, but rejected the rest of the dipnet-related proposals. During a discussion of a proposal that would eliminate the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner’s authority to extend the fishery to 24 hours per day, concern arose about the burden on the city of Kenai for maintenance. The Alaska Department of Law ruled that the board didn’t have the authority to revoke the commissioner’s authority, but board member Robert Ruffner asked Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten for a promise to work with the city government more closely. “If there’s a 24-hour fishery, it does impact the local government’s ability to do their job, as it would with an extension of the season,” he said. “I certainly pledge to work closely with the city.” Although all the members voted against the proposal, most acknowledged that the issues with the dipnet fishery are real. Board member Orville Huntington said he hoped the board and Fish and Game would treat the city of Kenai with more respect in the future. “I think we need to acknowledge that it’s a pretty severe cost to those residents,” Huntington said. “We should be treating them kindly (for) them sharing their resources with us.” The proposal that passed, an amended version of a proposal from Fish and Game, closes the banks between No Name Creek and the Warren Ames Bridge on the north bank and between the beach and the Kenai Landing dock on the south side. It doesn’t include the highest-use area, which is the south bank near the Warren Ames Bridge, where there is a state-run parking lot. Ruffner motioned for the change at the request of Kenai’s city council, saying there were a number of private landowners who had established infrastructure to access the river there. The former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a conservation organization, he said that the land on the flats is too sensitive for long-term foot traffic. “These are tidally inundated flats,” he said. “Once or twice a year, the water runs up over them. They’re loamy soils, really subject to getting compacted when you walk on them, put coolers on them. … Once you compact these particular kinds of soils, you can’t fix them.” The one confounding factor is that the state is working on obtaining funding for habitat protection structures there, and managers were worried that if the banks were closed, there would be no impetus for the funding. The board batted around the idea of a sunset clause or possibly allowing the department to use its emergency order authority to close the banks. Ruffner said he was concerned that the grants may not work out and the damage will continue. The board ultimately accepted the proposal with a vote of 5-2. The board rejected all other proposals related to the Kenai dipnet fishery, saying they wanted to maintain the status quo and work on collaboration. Though people disagreed about the particular negative side effects of the fishery, almost everyone who participated in the committee process Friday had one or two observations about the fishery that were causing problems, including fish waste, small boats being swamped by bigger boats, household limit abuse or general disarray. However, the one thing many agreed on was that something needed to be done in the fishery. During the committee discussion, one theme arose in multiple people’s suggestions — a long-term plan. When the dipnet fishery was established in 1993, there wasn’t really a plan for it. It replaced the historical subsistence program that allowed Alaskans to harvest fish wherever they wanted for personal purposes, but the Board of Fisheries didn’t provide funding for it and there weren’t clear parameters for regulations other than household limits, gear type and area. Each personal-use area works differently. Board member Sue Jeffrey referenced this during the board’s discussion. “A long-term plan may come forward with future discussions, but for now I think this is working hand-in-hand with this community that is hosting this amazing fishery,” she said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Lack of coho data complicates fish board discussions

Although coho salmon populations have played an important role in many of the decisions made at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting so far, one evident detail is that there’s a lot of data missing. For one, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn’t do much inseason coho run management in Cook Inlet. There’s no escapement goal on the Kenai River, and Fish and Game has proposed to set an escapement goal for the Deshka River in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley just this year. There is an escapement goal for Little Susitna coho salmon, but runs fluctuate, and managers have only achieved the escapement goal in three years since 2009, according to online weir counts. Coho salmon runs are highly variable and are primarily harvested by sportfishermen. They’re primarily managed for sport use as well, which leads to scuffles over allocation with commercial fishermen, who are also allowed to catch them under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits. On Sunday, the board denied a number of proposals related to Kenai River coho salmon, mentioning repeatedly a lack of data as a concern. One proposal, which would have increased the bag limit for coho salmon from two to three earlier in the season, failed 1-6, but led the board to ask what Fish and Game does track with coho salmon. Board member Robert Ruffner expressed concern about additional sport harvest on Kenai River coho, given that earlier in the meeting, the board passed proposals that could increase commercial fishing time in both the setnet fishery and the drift gillnet fishery. Although effort is most intense in August, according to Fish and Game’s estimates, there’s still little room for upping the bag limit, he said. “We did take some actions at this board that allocated some more fish to the commercial fishery, but even had we not done that, there’s no room here to do that (significantly),” he said. On the Kenai, the bag limit automatically increases from two to three fish after September 1, unrelated to run strength. Managers don’t assess run strength and thus can’t tell inseason how many coho run in the Kenai River. The Division of Commercial FIsheries ran an offshore test fishery near the northern line of the Central District, drawn between Boulder Point in Nikiski and the Kustatan Peninsula, which sampled coho salmon genetics in the inlet, but inriver, Fish and Game relies on creel surveys and the annual statwide harvest survey to gather abundance data. The last significant study done on Kenai River coho harvest rates, total run strength and escapement covered 1999–2004. Based on that data, managers estimate that current total harvest is about 49 percent, said Sportfish Area Research Biologist Robert Begich in a presentation to the board on Feb. 23. Other studies conducted in Southeast Alaska have shown that populations of coho can sustain exploitation rates up to about 61 percent, but because coho runs are so variable, Fish and Game managers like to maintain some breathing room, said Southcentral Area Management Coordinator Matt Miller to the board Saturday. Before the board voted down the bag limit proposal, Director of the Division of Sportfish Tom Brookover said Fish and Game stayed neutral on most of the coho-related allocative proposals, but some managers are getting uncomfortable with high harvest rates and a lack of information. “Without (Kenai coho) escapement information, we really don’t have a major piece of the puzzle that we need to answer some of these questions,” he said. After a lengthy debate, the board passed a proposal closing coho fishing a month earlier in part of the middle Kenai River, between Bings Landing and Skilak Lake. The proposer, Kenai River Professional Guides Association, originally wanted to close the whole river after Oct. 31 to protect coho salmon when the water level begins to fall as the river ices up for the winter. With the amended proposal, board member Sue Jeffrey said she thought it was an appropriate protection for coho, especially those in clearer, shallower side channels. Ruffner said in light of the lack of data, he thought the proposer’s intent to protect the coho was genuine. “We’ve talked a lot about coho, how we don’t have any great enumeration, how we don’t have any great monitoring, so the proposers were really just talking about slowing that down,” he said. In the area between Skilak Lake and the Moose River, a little downstream of Bings Landing, after Sept. 1, anglers harvest about 3,800 coho on average, Begich said. There isn’t any guide logbook data for the area, meaning that there’s no guided effort there, he said. Given that, board member Israel Payton said he didn’t see a reason to close the area because it’s mostly unguided anglers, so it would be reducing opportunity. “I don’t think passing this would lend to any conservation measures,” he said. The board has been wrangling with lack of a lack of coho data around Cook Inlet in its decisions all this week. The main point of contention in a discussion over expanding fishing area for the commercial drift gillnet fleet was whether they intercepted northern-bound coho salmon, but the board didn’t have exact harvest data on what was Kenai or Susitna stocks. Fish and Game presented data from 2013–2015 characterizing genetic data for coho harvests in the commercial fishery, though the data is new and has not been used in management yet. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board passes sweeping change for early run kings

March 5 Early run Kenai River king salmon will now have more protection in the middle river and management will be more conservative after the Board of Fisheries unanimously approved a rewrite of the early run management plan. It’s a paradigm shift for the fishery. Essentially, the new plan turns the Kenai River into a pass-through fishery on the lower 19 miles, and once early run kings have made their way into the middle river between Slikok Creek and Skilak Lake, they have far more protections than they have in the past. It also does away with the slot limit, a size restriction meant to protect larger fish but left some of the very largest available for harvest. The new plan has multiple tiers based on projected escapements and separates the lower and middle river sections. In the lower river, if the run is projected to fall below the sustainable escapement goal of 2,800-5,600 big kings, the fishery is closed. If it is between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal of 3,900-6,600 salmon, the managers can close the fishery or allow catch-and-release. If it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, managers can allow bait and retention of fish of a size the department deems appropriate. In the middle river, restrictions are tighter and last through July 31, including the late run season. The fishery is closed if the projection is below the sustainable escapement goal; if it’s between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal, it can go to catch-and-release or remained closed; if it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, the department can allow retention of fish up to 36 inches long, but no bait will be allowed. “Our job as board members is to conserve and develop fisheries, and that language order is not by accident,” said board member Robert Ruffner, who led the charge on the proposal. “This work that we’re giong to undertake here is maybe some of the most critical work I’ve undertaken. The early run king salmon in my community has fallen down, and it’s fallen down seriously.” The goal all along has been to rebuild the overall size, age class and gender ratio of the early run, which has been falling off for decades. Ruffner said some of that may be due to natural decline, but much is due to mismanagement. The proposal was the amended and compromise-filled brainchild of three interest groups — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association. The three, which have not always seen eye-to-eye over the years on fisheries issues, worked together on a proposal redrafting many of the provisions of the early run king salmon management plan, including setting a size cap at 36 inches. They turned in a joint proposal Friday. Tensions ran high in the breaks between board discussions March 5, with the meeting starting nearly two and a half hours late after Fish and Game staff worked on the language for the new early run Kenai king salmon plan. Small groups met and ran anxiously through language, and “10-minute” breaks stretched out into double or triple that as board members tried to work out what the proposers wanted. When Fish and Game issued its first draft of language, it was not in line with what the groups wanted, they said in another submitted document. They, Ruffner and Fish and Game staff spent the rest of the day rehashing the language to fit better with what they wanted. By the afternoon on March 6, they came together on a consolidated proposal that hit some of the high points from the individual groups’ proposals, with Ruffner championing it. Fish and Game’s main objection was to the reduction in harvest potential. Setting the cap at 36 inches eliminated about 70 percent of the fish, said Southcentral regional management supervisor Matt Miller in answer to a question from the board. The proposed new management plan would create a primarily catch-and-release fishery and make it harder for the department to manage to its escapement goals, he said. “This will increase the likelihood that we’ll exceed the (optimum escapement goal), which has already been set well above the upper bound of the (sustainable escapement goal),” he said. Ruffner fired back that that was the least of the department’s worries. Preseason forecasts are for the total early run to be below average, falling within the optimum escapement goal, according to staff reports presented on the first day of the meeting Feb. 23. “My response to that is if that’s the biggest thing you’re worried about, we have a problem,” he said. “I want you to maintain goals. … With the preseason forecast information we have right now, this is not going to be an issue.” Though the vote was unanimous, some of the board members expressed concern during deliberations. Board members Israel Payton and Al Cain said they were concerned about extending the regulations into the last two weeks of July to apply to the late run. “My understanding is that the department is very comfortable that the tributary spawners are not there or they are in the tributaries,” Payton said. “… If we do this, it really affects late run fishing in the middle river.” Members of the groups who helped author the proposal said they were proud of the measure’s success and hoped it would be a path to rebuild Kenai River early run stocks for the future. Dwight Kramer, a board member of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, said in a statement that it was the highlight of his years attending Board of Fisheries meetings. “We at KAFC are proud to have been a part of the groups that came together here today for the good of the Kenai River early run chinook salmon,” he said. “The fish have to come first.” Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said it was a great plan that would offer some opportunity but begin a process to rebuild the early run. Fish and Game had some hesitancies, but in the end they seemed to agree that they should give it a try to see how it works and return in three years to work out problems, he said. He also noted that it had been a transparent process with good conversation throughout. “It’s time for a new approach,” he said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board of Fish adds 1 district-wide opener for Inlet drifters

Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fleet will get another 12 hours of fishing time in July, but no one is 100 percent happy about it. For one, the drifters feel like it wasn’t enough. The Board of Fisheries approved an amended proposal at its Thursday meeting that states the commercial fishing managers may open up one fishing period between July 16 and July 31 in the Central District, where before they were restricted to only part of the district. Since they have been restricted to fishing in the corridors, which parallel the shore and keep the fishermen from being able to traverse the entire inlet, they say they haven’t been able to efficiently harvest sockeye salmon, leading to overescapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. “It’s token,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Many sportfishermen feel like the board is chipping away at the commercial fishing restrictions too much, reallocating Cook Inlet’s highly contested salmon populations to the commercial fishing fleet. Chief among the complaints is concern for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s coho salmon, which have been on the decline for at least the past decade. Sportfishermen in the valley say the drifters are blocking too many salmon from moving up into the northern streams, corking off the salmon populations and furthering the decline. In the back of the room Thursday, sportfishermen shook their heads as the measure passed. Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the board’s decisions so far this meeting have not been good for sportfishermen. The blame game washed back and forth on Wednesday, with Mat-Su Valley fishermen and officials blaming the sockeye and coho stock declines on the drift fishermen and the drift fishermen blaming the stock declines on conditions in the valley. The discussion was notably civil compared to previous years, but the disagreements were sharp. It’s a long-standing conflict. In 2008, when Susitna sockeye salmon were designated a stock of concern, it triggered restrictions on the drift fleet intended to prevent harvest of northern-bound sockeye and coho salmon as they passed through the Cook Inlet. Although drift fishermen have never denied that they harvest northern-bound sockeye and coho, they say the decline is because of poor production due to shallow lakes in the valley, widespread predation by invasive northern pike and pathogens in the water that affect salmon. In 2011, the Board of Fisheries instituted what drift fishermen refer to as a corridor and Mat-Su and Northern Cook Inlet district commercial set gillnet fishermen have referred to as a conservation corridor. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the restrictions on the fishing areas were tightened, and the drifters were in the corridor for almost all their regular periods. The effectiveness of the corridor in conserving northern-bound sockeye and coho was a question on Thursday, though. The board spent the first chunk of its day grilling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff on science and data related to coho salmon, both in the Susitna system and being harvested by the drift fleet. No one debated that the corridors effectively allowed salmon to move north — the drift fleet is less efficient when operating in the corridors, which is the point. However, swimming beside the northern-bound sockeye and coho in the Central District are Kenai-and Kasilof-bound sockeye, which return in larger numbers and which the drift fleet says have overescaped for the past several years. Mat-Su Valley advocates say the drift fishermen already get more salmon than everybody else. “In reality, the drift fleet gets first opportunity at the fish,” said Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairman Andy Couch in the committee Wednesday. “… They have to swim through the area the drift fleet is in. (The drifters) get to use more net than everybody else, they can move up and down through 60 miles of the inlet, and if you look at their harvests, they are the user group that harvests the most sockeye salmon, the most coho salmon, the most chum salmon, the most pink salmon.” The board was torn 4-3 on the amended proposal, with board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voting against it. The final accepted proposal was an amendment by board member Robert Ruffner, which offered significantly fewer liberalizations to the drift fleet than the original proposal. Still, discussion over the nature of the reallocation went back and forth. Payton said providing more fish to the drift fleet was reallocating them away from the Mat-Su sportfishermen, the Northern Cook Inlet district setnetters, the Fish Creek personal-use fishery and from subsistence users further up in the northern Cook Inlet drainages. Morisky referenced a discussion from the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer over whether to liberalize fishing regulations on the winter king salmon fishery in Kachemak Bay, saying that Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery was fully allocated already. “There’s talk about whose fish that might be, and some of the same folks that are saying we need a little bit more, we need a little bit less, they are someone else’s fish,” he said. “This is a fully allocated fishery, and I believe the current management plan fairly allocates the fishery at this present time.” In answer to a question from Ruffner, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields estimated that if the opener were district-wide rather than restricted to a section of the inlet, the coho harvest might increase by between 2,500 and 5,000 fish. If the sockeye run is late, it could also coincide with an on-time coho run, which could increase harvest on coho, said commercial fisheries salmon and herring management coordinator Tim Baker, in answer to a question from the board. Board chairman John Jensen and member Sue Jeffrey said they thought it was fair to offer the commercial fishermen more time. Jeffrey said the commercial fishermen had harvested the coho runs in the past and the board should review regulations that have only been in place for a relatively short time. Jensen said he would have liked to see more time given to the commercial fishery but he supported what he called “a minuscule change.” “It will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up,” he said. “… (Commercial guides) are trying to make a living off the fish, the commercial guys are trying to make a living off the fish, and we’re still trying to provide opportunities for those people who want to go out and catch their dinner.” Because board member Orville Huntington had to leave briefly, the board suspended deliberations on drift gillnet fishery issues and picked up committee discussions on Northern Cook Inlet sportfishing issues and assorted commercial issues. The board will resume deliberations Friday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]    

Board of Fish adds 1 district-wide opener for drifters

Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fleet will get another 12 hours of fishing time in July, but no one is 100 percent happy about it. For one, the drifters feel like it wasn’t enough. The Board of Fisheries approved an amended proposal March 2 that states the commercial fishing managers may open up one fishing period between July 16 and July 31 in the Central District, where before they were restricted to only part of the district. Since they have been restricted to fishing in the corridors, which parallel the shore and keep the fishermen from being able to traverse the entire inlet, they say they haven’t been able to efficiently harvest sockeye salmon, leading to overescapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. “It’s token,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Many sportfishermen feel like the board is chipping away at the commercial fishing restrictions too much, reallocating Cook Inlet’s highly contested salmon populations to the commercial fishing fleet. Chief among the complaints is concern for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s coho salmon, which have been on the decline for at least the past decade. Sportfishermen in the valley say the drifters are blocking too many salmon from moving up into the northern streams, corking off the salmon populations and furthering the decline. In the back of the room March 2, sportfishermen shook their heads as the measure passed. Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the board’s decisions so far this meeting have not been good for sportfishermen. The blame game washed back and forth on March 1, with Mat-Su Valley fishermen and officials blaming the sockeye and coho stock declines on the drift fishermen and the drift fishermen blaming the stock declines on conditions in the valley. The discussion was notably civil compared to previous years, but the disagreements were sharp. It’s a long-standing conflict. In 2008, when Susitna sockeye salmon were designated a stock of concern, it triggered restrictions on the drift fleet intended to prevent harvest of northern-bound sockeye and coho salmon as they passed through the Cook Inlet. Although drift fishermen have never denied that they harvest northern-bound sockeye and coho, they say the decline is because of poor production due to shallow lakes in the valley, widespread predation by invasive northern pike and pathogens in the water that affect salmon. In 2011, the Board of Fisheries instituted what drift fishermen refer to as a corridor and Mat-Su and Northern Cook Inlet district commercial set gillnet fishermen have referred to as a conservation corridor. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the restrictions on the fishing areas were tightened, and the drifters were in the corridor for almost all their regular periods. The effectiveness of the corridor in conserving northern-bound sockeye and coho was a question on March 2, though. The board spent the first chunk of its day grilling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff on science and data related to coho salmon, both in the Susitna system and being harvested by the drift fleet. No one debated that the corridors effectively allowed salmon to move north — the drift fleet is less efficient when operating in the corridors, which is the point. However, swimming beside the northern-bound sockeye and coho in the Central District are Kenai-and Kasilof-bound sockeye, which return in larger numbers and which the drift fleet says have overescaped for the past several years. Mat-Su Valley advocates say the drift fishermen already get more salmon than everybody else. “In reality, the drift fleet gets first opportunity at the fish,” said Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairman Andy Couch in the committee March 1. “… They have to swim through the area the drift fleet is in. (The drifters) get to use more net than everybody else, they can move up and down through 60 miles of the inlet, and if you look at their harvests, they are the user group that harvests the most sockeye salmon, the most coho salmon, the most chum salmon, the most pink salmon.” The board was torn 4-3 on the amended proposal, with board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voting against it. The final accepted proposal was an amendment by board member Robert Ruffner, which offered significantly fewer liberalizations to the drift fleet than the original proposal. Still, discussion over the nature of the reallocation went back and forth. Payton said providing more fish to the drift fleet was reallocating them away from the Mat-Su sportfishermen, the Northern Cook Inlet district setnetters, the Fish Creek personal-use fishery and from subsistence users further up in the northern Cook Inlet drainages. Morisky referenced a discussion from the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer over whether to liberalize fishing regulations on the winter king salmon fishery in Kachemak Bay, saying that Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery was fully allocated already. “There’s talk about whose fish that might be, and some of the same folks that are saying we need a little bit more, we need a little bit less, they are someone else’s fish,” he said. “This is a fully allocated fishery, and I believe the current management plan fairly allocates the fishery at this present time.” In answer to a question from Ruffner, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields estimated that if the opener were district-wide rather than restricted to a section of the inlet, the coho harvest might increase by between 2,500 and 5,000 fish. If the sockeye run is late, it could also coincide with an on-time coho run, which could increase harvest on coho, said commercial fisheries salmon and herring management coordinator Tim Baker, in answer to a question from the board. Board chairman John Jensen and member Sue Jeffrey said they thought it was fair to offer the commercial fishermen more time. Jeffrey said the commercial fishermen had harvested the coho runs in the past and the board should review regulations that have only been in place for a relatively short time. Jensen said he would have liked to see more time given to the commercial fishery but he supported what he called “a minuscule change.” “It will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up,” he said. “… (Commercial guides) are trying to make a living off the fish, the commercial guys are trying to make a living off the fish, and we’re still trying to provide opportunities for those people who want to go out and catch their dinner.” Because board member Orville Huntington had to leave briefly, the board suspended deliberations on drift gillnet fishery issues and picked up committee discussions on Northern Cook Inlet sportfishing issues and assorted commercial issues. The board will resume deliberations Friday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board rewrites Kenai late-run king plan

After a day of heavy clashes and divided votes, the Board of Fisheries reformed late-run king salmon management on the Kenai River to loosen restrictions a little more for east side setnetters. The Board of Fisheries spent Tuesday afternoon painstakingly, paragraph by paragraph, going through the management plan for the Kenai River’s late-run king salmon. Under the current management regime, a lot rides on the escapement numbers of late-run kings, both in the sportfishery and the commercial setnet fishery. At the 2014 meeting, after a disastrously low king return in the 2012 season slammed the season closed on the setnet fishery and heavily restricted the inriver sport fishery, the board passed corresponding restrictions on the sport fishery and the setnet fishery based on king escapements. The restrictions, known as paired restrictions, were billed as sharing of the burden of conservation, though setnetters say they unfairly places the burden on them while the sportfishery still gets to operate while they are closed. With a full suite of proposals that tinkered with various aspects of the plan, three days packed with public comment and a full day behind schedule, the board tackled the issue with a bare-bones document with amendments composed by board member Israel Payton, drawing from suggestions from the public and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff. On the chopping block were three major issues: the conversion of the current all-fish goal to Fish and Game’s big fish goal, the restrictions to the sport and commercial fisheries based on a run trigger point and the level of parity in the paired restrictions. “We set these management plans and we change them over years,” Payton said. “… Through committee of the whole, we heard various things from various users, and yes, this plan may need some tweaking.” The cry from the commercial fisheries has been “let the managers manage,” meaning for the board to take prescriptive management measures off. The sportfishing advocates have said the paired restrictions only kick into effect during years of low king salmon abundance, which aren’t every year, so they do provide for parity. The board spent its entire afternoon tinkering with aspects of the plan, primarily targeted at whether to relax some restrictions on the commercial fishery. One of the biggest struggles was over whether to make changes to the paired restrictions, which board member Sue Jeffrey proposed as a way to answer the complaints from the commercial setnetters. “I think we’ve heard so far throughout this meeting that paired restrictions are anything but parity,” she said. “… I think that we are in a new regime. This is a reason to change, because we are talking about counting large kings now, which has an effect on the sockeye fishery that is going on at the same time. This is reasonable because we have two runs, two different fisheries taking place at the same time.” Jimmying from the two user groups also played a role. During the midday break, two proposed amendments — one from a group of east side setnetters, the other from the sportfishing group Kenai River Sportfishing Association — were submitted, with the only significant difference coming in the restrictions to the setnet fishery. Early on in the discussion, the board decided to tackle a number of the issues in one go. They voted to drop the trigger number, which has been set at 22,500 and would have been adjusted to account for the new large fish goal, which is between 13,500 and 27,000 late-run kings. The trigger sets off restrictions to both the sportfishery and the commercial fishery, and removing it allows the board to make the call based on wehther it will make its escapement. Sportfish area management coordinator Tom Vania said removing the trigger would allow the department to react to a variety of different circumstances, depending on harvest and on the run size. More contentious was the debate over whether to remove or change the paired restrictions. Jeffrey proposed an amendment to introduce time allowances based on run size, similar to the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management plan, with tiers based on projected escapement. Director of the Division of Sport Fish Tom Brookover said the division was concerned that if more time were added, based on additional harvest of king salmon, staff would be more likely to restrict to no bait on the sportfishery, which would trigger additional restrictions on the setnet fishery. “I think the effect would be that we would be under these restrictions in more run size scenarios than we would be currently,” he said. With that in mind, and information that the setnet fishery harvests approximately 150 large kings per day, Jeffrey said she wouldn’t support adding the tiers. The motion failed, and the time allowances stayed in place there. However, the board did vote to change the hour allowances for setnets in three circumstances. When the sportfishery is at no bait, the board adjusted the hours available from 36 to 48, which is less than board members Robert Ruffner, Orville Huntington, Jeffrey and board chair John Jensen said they would like, but they were willing to compromise. The board also increased the number of setnet fishing hours available when the sportfishery is at catch-and-release from 12 to 24, essentially restoring two 12-hour fishing periods. Finally, they repealed hour restrictions to the setnet fishery in August, after the sportfishery was closed, while it previously was set by triggers based on projected escapements. The board passed the plan as amended 7-0. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board loosens some season restrictions on setnetters

Upper Cook Inlet’s east side setnetters may get more fishing time next season. The Board of Fisheries passed two proposals Feb. 28 that relaxed some of the season restrictions on the east side set gillnet fishery, which operates in two sections between Ninilchik and Nikiski. The result is that fishermen may get an extra week in August and a subset of fishermen in North Kalifornsky Beach may get a few extra days in July. The first proposal, the more controversial of the two, moved back the effective date for the one percent rule. The rule, applied separately to the Kasilof section and the Kenai section, automatically closed the fisheries when less than one percent of the season’s total sockeye harvest is taken in two consecutive periods after Aug. 1. Commercial fishermen argued that the rule was not based on science and prevented them from harvesting leftover sockeye and pink salmon, contributing to overescapement. Sportfishing advocates argued that the rule protects coho salmon stocks, which overlap with the sockeye run and are managed primarily for sport use. In a 4-3 vote, the board moved back the rule’s effective date from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game retains its emergency order authority to close the fishery before then. Board member Sue Jeffrey amended the original proposal, which eliminated the one percent rule entirely, to simply move back the effective date. She said it fit within allocation criteria and was a matter of opportunity. “What this would provide is opportunity for those who fish who are locals who want to harvest this amount of sockeye … it’s not going to be the whole fleet here,” she said. “It would just be a scaled down amount of people and it would benefit the processors and those who want to harvest the pinks and the sockeye.” Most of the concern surrounding the proposal was for coho stocks. Setnetters are allowed to harvest any type of Pacific salmon under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits, but coho are primarily harvested by sportfishermen in Cook Inlet. Fish and Game staff estimated at the Tuesday meeting that about 3 percent of the coho harvest is taken by commercial fishermen. There hasn’t been a definitive study about coho harvest and migration on the Kenai River since 2004, said area sportfish research biologist Robert Begich. Biologists estimate current total harvest and exploitation rate in the middle to high 50 percentile range. King salmon are also still moving into the Kenai River at the time settnetters stand to gain — the department typically stops counting kings around Aug. 19 or 20. About 16 percent of the run typically comes in after Aug. 1, Begich said. Board member Reed Morisky said due to the concern about kings and coho, he supported the status quo for the one percent rule. “I believe there’s fishing enough for everyone in the current one percent scenario,” he said. Board chairman John Jensen said additional openings at the end of a commercial fishing season can help fishermen break even on a season after paying their bills, and moving back the rule would effectively only give the fishermen two additional 12-hour fishing periods in the season. That still leaves a lot of hours for coho to escape into the river, he said. Jensen also said the balance between the fisheries is important to the economy of Upper Cook Inlet and that he supports the change. “Our job … is to keep the salmon populations healthy, and second, to provide opportunity, and then we divide allocation,” he said. “What we’re doing here is a small change but I think it’s a good change.” Changing the date of the one percent rule also has implications for the drift gillnet fleet. They operate under their own version of the one percent rule, but if both the Kenai and Kasilof sections are closed, drifters are pushed to only the western side of Cook Inlet. The board also passed a proposal allowing managers to open the setnet fishery on North Kalifornsky Beach on July 8 in accordance with openings from the Kasilof section, even when the Kenai and East Foreland sections are not open. The area is technically part of the Kenai section. Proposer Gary Hollier, who operates a setnet site in the North K-Beach area, said the area lost fishing time at the 1999 Board of Fisheries meeting and he has proposed the same change ever since. He also included a stipulation in his original proposal that would require all nets to be limited to 29 meshes deep. Although it’s not required by regulation, Hollier has long been a proponent of cutting net depth to allow king salmon to pass beneath, as it is commonly thought that kings swim deeper than sockeye. The goal was primarily to give North K-Beach setnet fishermen a chance to harvest more Kasilof sockeye, which circle north and pass along the beach back southward to enter the Kasilof River. However, the board removed the 29-mesh depth requirement, allowing for all gear lengths to be used, before passing the proposal. Fish and Game didn’t have enough data to quantify if reducing net depth would decrease king salmon harvest, according to the staff comments. Setnet fishermen who stack permits — the term for one person having and operating multiple limited entry permits under one name — are restricted to 29 mesh-deep nets on the second permit anyway, under regulations that were passed in 2014. Hollier said stacked permits may be common in the area, with nine families owning about 45 permits. One of the main reasons board members Robert Ruffner and Al Cain supported the proposal was because of concerns over the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The one-mile square area near the mouth of the Kasilof River that is a last-ditch mechanism to help prevent overescapement of sockeye, puts a large number of commercial fishermen into a small area and can lead to gear and user conflicts. In answer to a question, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said it was hard to quantify whether passing the proposal would help reduce the use of the special harvest area, but it could. The board passed the proposal 6-1, with Morisky voting against. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries revises sockeye goals for Kenai River

Significantly behind schedule and deep into the mathematical weeds, the Board of Fisheries spent most of its first day of deliberations on one proposal to amend the escapement goals for Kenai River late-run sockeye. The proposal, submitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asked the board to review the optimum escapement goal and inriver goal on the river for the late run of sockeye salmon. After several hours of discussion and back-and-forth amendments, the board passed a proposal eliminating the optimum escapement goal and increasing the ceiling of two of the inriver goal tiers. The final language was intended as a compromise between sportfishing and commercial groups, from an amendment authored by board member Robert Ruffner. Commercial groups sought to eliminate the optimum escapement goal, saying it was redundant to the sustainable escapement goal, while sportfishing groups said it allowed managers flexibility during years of extremely large returns. “One of the things that was in (the original proposal) was trying to manage for multiple goals,” Ruffner said. “One of the first steps was removing the OEG … the second point that I thought was increasing the upper end of the inriver goal.” As adopted, the river will now be managed under a sustainable escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.2 million sockeye salmon and inriver goal with three tiers, based on the total projected run. The bottom tier, when total runs are projected less than 2.3 million fish, will remain the same. The middle tier, when the total run is projected between 2.3 million and 4.6 million, will now be managed for between 1 million and 1.3 million fish. The upper tier, when runs are projected to be greater than 4.6 million fish, will now be managed for 1.3 million to 1.5 million fish. Ruffner said his intent in eliminating the optimum escapement goal was to simplify the management. Many people, both on the board and in the public, expressed concern about the complexity of the Kenai River’s escapement management during public comment and committee discussions. In answer to a question from Ruffner, Fish and Game staff said it would be easier for them to manage within the now broader range. Commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said the effect could be that when the managers are within the middle tier, the sportfishery allocation could increase by 100,000 fish, and 150,000 when in the upper tier. Confusion over the mathematical and technical aspects of the escapement goals pervaded the day. The interlocking management of the Cook Inlet fisheries means that changes to the sockeye salmon management plan will lead to effects not only on the sportfishery but also on the drift gillnet and setnet fisheries and the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River. During the long breaks Monday, multiple groups brought language to amend the original language. The Kenai River Professional Guides Association submitted a possible amendment asking for a regulation automatically increasing the bag limit when the run is projected to exceed 4.6 million fish, but the board did not address it. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association submitted a substitute to raise the inriver goal tier levels but leave the optimum escapement goal in place if runs were projected to exceed 6 million fish, increased from the 4.6 million fish trigger. Board member Reed Morisky moved to make an amendment similar to KRSA’s suggested amendment, leaving the optimum escapement goal in place, but later withdrew it. The only concern from the board was eliminating the optimum escapement goal. During initial discussion, board member Israel Payton said he was hesitant to eliminate it because of concerns for northern stocks like the Susitna River sockeye salmon, but later said it made him more comfortable and didn’t support Morisky’s amendment. “I think we’ve heard a common theme to simplify (management),” he said. Kenai River Sportfishing Association fisheries consultant Kevin Delaney said after the meeting that the inriver goal increase doesn’t technically increase the allocation — it only acknowledges that the sportfishery is bigger than it used to be, and allowing for the broader range is both easier to manage for and ensures that the managers will be able to meet their sustainable escapement goal after the inriver fishery harvest. With the potential for more fish allowed into the river with higher goals, Ruffner said the board will carefully watch the potential for increased habitat damage because sockeye are bank oriented and most people angle from riverbanks to target them. However, the commercial fishermen didn’t get their half of the compromise, which was the elimination of the mandatory Tuesday closure, known as a window. Ruffner attempted to amend a proposal that would eliminate both the Tuesday and Friday windows to only eliminate the Tuesday window, citing concerns from the public. Board member Sue Jeffrey supported it, saying it fit the allocation criteria. However, Payton and Morisky opposed it, saying the windows provided reliability for the sportfishery and personal-use fishery, allowing more sockeye to pass by the commercial nets to make into the river. Ruffner argued that it was fair, in light of the now-increased inriver goal. He also said it would help decrease the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a one-mile square area at the mouth of the Kasilof River, to control sockeye escapement into the river. When used, the area can get extremely crowded and has risks for king salmon also headed for the river, he said. “We’re still going to manage for escapement goals, and in light of the fact that we just increased the inriver allocation by a fairly significant amount, that’s (my reasoning),” he said. East side setnetter Joseph Person said the intention was that the inriver fishery would get a slightly increased allocation in exchange for the elimination of one of the two windows. However, the proposal to eliminate the Tuesday window failed on a 3-4 vote, with chairman John Jensen, Ruffner and Jeffrey supporting it. The board concluded deliberations before taking on any additional setnet proposals. They were set to take up proposals related to the one percent rule in the setnet fishery Tuesday morning. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Proposals would change dipnet fishery area, season

KENAI — Like most fisheries issues in Upper Cook Inlet, there’s a lot of disagreement about what to do with the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery. The fishery, which takes place every July 10–31, is the most popular of its kind in the state. Thousands of Alaskans jump into boats and flock to the Kenai River’s north and south beaches to get a shot at the sockeye salmon that return to the river every year, harvesting some 259,057 sockeye in 2016, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. However, the push and pull of allocation battles, safety issues and habitat damage may herald some changes for the fishery in the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting. Some proposals ask the board to set more limits on the fishery. Others ask for liberalization of time and space. The board will take up and discuss all the proposals at its meeting in Anchorage from Feb. 23-March 8. Two proposals ask for the dipnet fishery to be extended into August — one from a private citizen and the other from the sportfishing, trapping and hunting advocacy group the Alaska Outdoor Council. The citizen, Ronald Jordan, wrote that the dipnet fishery would be safer if it were extended to the second Sunday in August; the Alaska Outdoor Council wrote that extending the fishery through Aug. 10 when the sonar estimate is projected to pass 1.2 million sockeye would allow more opportunity for anglers and dipnetters. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, lent his support to extending the season with a letter to the Board of Fisheries, dated Feb. 2. He urged people to send comments to the Board of Fisheries about dipnet timing issues before the meeting in February. His comments make the argument that because sockeye salmon are arriving later and the commercial fleet is allowed by regulation to fish until Aug. 15, the dipnetters are unfairly shorted a shot at the sockeye. It should still be executed to protect silver salmon runs, though, which intersect with the tail end of the sockeye runs, he wrote. “The commercial fishery is important to Alaskan families, as is the personal-use fishery, and leaving the latter open does not materially impact commercial fishermen,” Gara wrote. “Rather, this policy change would reflect the reality of later fish runs, entering the river after the July 31 closure.” Extending the dipnet fishery would also impact the City of Kenai, as it is responsible for cleaning and patrolling the beaches and the section of the river between the Warren Ames Bridge and the mouth. In comments on the Alaska Outdoor Council’s proposal, City Manager Paul Ostrander wrote that the city opposes the proposal because reopening the fishery would require the city to re-establish some of the amenities and services supporting it, which would be expensive. “Additionally, it is likely that participation during the first 10 days of August would be lower, resulting in lower revenues to the City from participant fees without a commensurate reduction in costs,” he wrote. Gara wrote in his letter to the Board of Fisheries that should the proposal pass, it should include proper notification to the city. Four proposals ask for changes to the boundaries of the Kenai River dipnet fishery. Three would expand or change the boundaries, and one would cut back on shore access. Fish and Game submitted a proposal to close the banks of the river between No Name Creek and the Warren Ames Bridge to shore-based dipnetting because of habitat damage. If the board adopts the proposal as it’s written, dipnetters would only be able to fish from a boat unless they were on the north and south beaches of the Kenai River’s mouth, both of which have entry fees administered by the City of Kenai. Included in the closure would be a number of private homes along the riverbank just downstream of the bridge. Those property owners would no longer be able to fish from their own property under the closure, Ostrander wrote in the city’s comments. Instead, the city proposed the closure only stretch between the bridge and a line just upstream of the first property. “If the city’s proposed amendment is adopted, (the proposal) will still accomplish its primary objectives of protecting the sensitive vegetated tide land area on the north and south shores of the river in the area immediately below Warren Ames bridge and eliminating overcrowding issues at the Kenai Flats Day Use Area,” he wrote. The city was less amenable to a proposal from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to extend the dipnet fishery from boats up to Cunningham Park, about another 1.5 miles up the river. Extending the fishery would help reduce crowding for dipnetting boats elsewhere, the proposal states. The City of Kenai “strongly opposes” the proposal, according to its comments. It would increase impacts to property owners in the area, including boat wake, noise and trespassing, and could create crowding and facility capacity issues at Cunningham Park, which is currently a popular bank angling spot. The city would be have to institute fees there to cover the additional costs, Ostrander wrote.

Setnetters seek looser restrictions from fish board

KENAI — Some east side Cook Inlet setnetters want the Board of Fisheries to loosen some of the regulations it has adopted over the years restricting the fishery. On the Kenai Peninsula, which is connected by road to the most populated areas of Alaska, user conflicts between commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries are common. The regulatory meetings before the Board of Fisheries are often contentious, with restrictions on one fishery resulting in additional allocation for another. In a set of proposals scheduled to go before the Board of Fisheries at its upcoming Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage Feb. 23-March 8, various groups and individuals have asked for broad changes to the setnetting restrictions in the Upper Subdistrict, which includes the Kenai and Kasilof sections. One percent rule One change requested in multiple proposals is the removal of the one-percent rule for setnets. The rule states that if less than one percent of the total harvest of sockeye is taken for two consecutive fishing periods after Aug. 1, the fishery must be closed for the season. Without the rule, the fishery would be managed with regular periods until Aug. 15. The rule was originally intended to allow coho salmon to move up the rivers for sport fishing harvests, as coho salmon begin migrating into the Kenai Peninsula’s rivers around August and continue through September and October. Some setnetters feel that it unfairly curtails the season without much benefit for coho salmon — three separate proposals were submitted for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, all asking for essentially the same thing. The Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee, a citizen board composed of multiple user groups from the Kenai Peninsula between Kasilof and Anchor Point, would like to see the rule repealed. “The adoption of the one percent rule has no scientific or biological support,” the group’s proposal states. “It is not used statewide and was strictly an arbitrarily and capriciously implemented allocation regulation.” The restriction on the fishing in August causes too many fish to escape into the rivers because fishermen cannot harvest them, resulting in both economic losses for the fishermen and potentially damage to the fish population, the proposal states. The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a nonprofit group representing Kenai Peninsula setnetters, also asked for the Board of Fisheries to repeal the rule for similar reasons. The fishing periods in August are important for catching sockeye, and coho still have months to move up into the river after the mandatory season closure on Aug. 15, the proposal states. KPFA President Andy Hall, an east side setnetter who lives in Chugiak during the winter, said the effect varies based on where setnetters are based — setnetters in the Ninilchik and Kasilof areas fish earlier in the season than those in the K-Beach area, so the effect isn’t even across the fishery. Those in the northern part of the fishery can take a significant portion of their catch in August, which gets cut short under the one percent rule, he said. “This rule, it can put the brake on people fishing when they’re actually making money and we’re trying to take that unharvested surplus,” he said. “We feel like it doesn’t do a lot for anybody other than put us on the beach.” Openings and closings “Paired restrictions” have been one of the least popular regulations among setnetters since they were enacted in a board-generated proposal at the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. The regulation sets up a stepped plan for openings based on king salmon escapement into the Kenai River — when more than 22,500 late-run king salmon are projected to enter the river, setnetters operate with regular openings. When the forecast is below that, the river opens with no bait and setnetters are restricted to no more than 36 hours per week. If the inriver fishery is restricted to catch-and-release, setnetters are restricted to one 12-hour period per week. Two proposals before the board would do away with paired restrictions. One, from the Central Peninsula AC, would modify the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan and the Kasilof River Salmon Management Plan to return setnetters to fishing regular periods, with additional openings or restrictions issued by emergency order. In its rationale, the advisory committee wrote that the proposal would allow the managers to manage for abundance better than they currently can. “This proposal will give the (biologists) the flexibility and proven tools to perform in-season real-time abundance based management and to be effective in achieving the escapement goals and to harvest the salmon surplus,” the group wrote. “This proposal also seeks to provide a reasonable opportunity for all harvesters and to provide adequate protection for northern bound and central district salmon stocks.” Joseph Person, who setnets near Kasilof and serves on the KPFA board, submitted a proposal to modify the paired restrictions to alter the pairings if they are not disposed of altogether. His proposal would change the pairings, allowing the setnetters to fish regular periods if the river starts with no bait and reducing the fishing periods to 36 hours per week if the inriver fishery goes to no bait, he said. The regular openings are important for efficiently fishing, he said. The 36 hours is manageable, but the 12-hour weekly opening paired restriction — which has not been implemented yet — would be a huge problem, he said.” “I personally value those regular openings,” he said. “… 36 hours is a reasonable amount of opportunity anyway. The big deal is the next step … that becomes a fishery that is not really manageable for anybody. It’s a big deal when you have 12 hours for everybody.” Tod Smith, a KPFA alternate board member and setnetter who worked on the proposal with Person, said the proposal would set no-bait as the normal opening restriction for the king salmon fishery on the river and for the setnetters. “Basically, our view is that no bait should be a normal setting, bait should be liberalization,” he said. “If there are paired restrictions, that’s how they should be done.” Person also submitted a proposal asking the Board of Fisheries to redefine the Upper Subdistrict into three areas — grouping Salamatof and East Forelands together, North and South Kalifornsky Beach together and Ninilchik and Coho together — with staggered opening dates. Creating three sections would allow for more flexible management based on the run timing of fish in those areas, he wrote. Setnetter Gary Hollier, whose sites are in the North K-Beach area, submitted a proposal asking the Board of Fisheries to open the North K-Beach section with shallow nets only when the Kasilof Section is open on or after July 8. The North K-Beach fishermen don’t have enough opportunity right now to harvest Kasilof sockeye salmon, although they traditionally have, he wrote. Opening the North K-Beach section up at the same time would allow the two sections a little more equity, he said. “We’re looking for a little bit of time and opportunity,” he said. Net depth Two proposals also address depth and length of nets for setnets. In recent years, research has shown that king salmon tend to swim deeper than sockeye salmon, so shallower nets would be less likely to catch as many king salmon as deeper nets. One proposal, submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, would require all setnets in the Upper Subdistrict to be limited to 29 meshes deep. The purpose is to limit setnet harvest of king salmon as much as possible, according to the proposal. “Research conducted at the request of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and widespread experience of setnet fishermen both demonstrate that fishing with shallower setnet gear will more selectively harvest large numbers of sockeye with reduced harvest of king salmon,” the proposal states. Hollier has long been an advocate of cutting net length to reduce king salmon harvest. The reason is simple economics, he said. “I’m in the business to make money, not lose money,” he said. “Bottom line is, if we don’t make king salmon goals, then we don’t fish.” He submitted a proposal that would allow setnets no more than 29 meshes deep to be up to 45 fathoms long, adding back a little bit of the lost gear in depth to the length. It’s still about 17 percent less gear in the water than the current regulation, he wrote in the proposal. Some fishermen have chosen not to cut down their gear depth, but some have adapted. Allowing them to add back length may help incentivize them to switch to shallower gear, he said. “I’d say if it works, and people have the option to do that, let them do that,” he said. “… I don’t think it should be mandatory for everybody.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Governor's budget would cut DOT jobs

The proposed cuts in Gov. Bill Walker’s fiscal year 2018 budget would fall heavily across the state, including broad reductions to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ design department. The $4.2 billion draft budget released Dec. 15 would cut 76 positions from the department, primarily engineers, interns and other staff from the internal design division. The cuts are part of an “aggressive plan” to transition the design of more DOT construction projects to private contractors, according to the budget detail. Shifting to private contractors would help leverage more federal dollars for transportation projects, according to the budget detail. “The department will increase work to the private sector while shrinking internal design staff,” the budget detail states. “This has the added advantage of bolstering the private sector economy. By operating with more contract staff and fewer in-house engineering staff, the department will balance public and private sector specialized expertise and be able to quickly scale up and scale down based on available funding.” The plan comes in response to a directive from the administration, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the DOT commissioner’s office. It’s also not the last reduction — part of the plan calls for the reduction of up to 300 additional positions in the fiscal year 2019 budget, he said. Not all the cuts are strictly related to design — they include the work on right-of-ways and other pre-construction work, Woodrow said. It isn’t clear at present how many positions could be cut, which is why the language included “up to” 300, he said. “There are some things the department is going to be working on with the Legislature and the administration over this session and over the coming months,” he said. Private contractors already do about 55 percent of all the department’s design work. The goal is to get 100 percent of it to be done by private contractors by fiscal year 2019, according to the budget detail. “Department of Transportation positions that remain after this initiative will be responsible for project management and contractor oversight as opposed to hands-on engineering work,” the budget detail states. The savings are still uncertain because the funds that would be saved by eliminating employees would be transferred to use for private contractors, said Pat Pitney, director of the governor’s Office of Management and Budget. The goal is to see if savings may come from using private contractors rather than in-house work, she said. “The savings is efficiencies,” she said. “Can we get more dollars for the products that we have? The funding is the same. Can we get more projects if we get more federal matching?” Going out to contractors for design work also offers a wider range of expertise and viewpoints, Pitney said. There are two unions represented in the positions that would be eliminated, so the state will have to complete a feasibility study to look at the effects, Woodrow said. Pitney said there will be “an expectation” that the state complete one, but said it would not have to be done beforehand. She said she isn’t sure if the state had gotten to the point where it had to do a similar feasibility study before, though if the state decides to privatize the Alaska Pioneer Homes — a debate currently going on — that will also require a feasibility study. Most of the jobs proposed for elimination are in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, the headquarters for DOT’s three regions, though a few are in outlying areas like Sitka and Kodiak. Woodrow said the department would work on finding answers for some of the uncertainties. “Bottom line is, this is an aggressive policy, we have the directive from the administration to work forward toward it,” he said. “But there’s a lot of unanswered questions that will be worked out in the coming months.” DOT, the third largest employer in the state, has already gone through significant budget cuts. Budget reductions have led to the closures of maintenance stations, the staggering of road maintenance and rounds of layoffs. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]  

Board of Fish denies most winter kings proposals

Despite a number of proposals and public comments in favor, the Board of Fisheries made few changes to the Lower Cook Inlet’s winter saltwater king salmon fishery. During its final Lower Cook Inlet cycle meeting Saturday in Homer, the board took up a variety of proposals related to the fishery, which typically takes place between Oct. 1 and March 31 in the saltwater south of Bluff Point. One group, Cook Inlet Recreational Fishermen, submitted a set of proposals asking the board to liberalize the fishery in light of new genetic research showing that most of the king salmon in the area during the winter are not Cook Inlet stocks. The only proposals the board approved were by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One expanded the winter king salmon management plan to apply for an extra month, now including September, expanded the fishery to include all of Cook Inlet and raised the guideline harvest limit from 3,000 fish to 4,500 fish. Part of the reason for the increase in the harvest limit is to account for the number of fish harvested in September. During the winter king fishery, fishermen do not have to record their harvests and the kings caught during the winter fishery do not apply to the Cook Inlet five-king annual limit. Because the winter management plan will now apply in September, fishermen won’t have to record their harvests that month for kings greater than 20 inches long. The harvest limit is only calculated after the season and is used as a gauge for Fish and Game managers to determine what to do with the fishery from year to year rather than as an inseason tool. The fishery exceeded the 3,000-fish limit in 2013, 2014 and 2015, possibly because of high participation in the past few years, said Carol Kerkvliet, the area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Homer. “It could be a combination of just the weather makes it appear that way, and the word’s getting out of something fun to do in the winter, to go fishing,” she said. Because most Alaska’s king salmon stocks have declined significantly over the past decade, including Cook Inlet stocks, several board members noted that they had concerns for the potential interception of mature king salmon, which migrate back to their spawning streams between April and August. Board member Sue Jeffrey noted concern for the king salmon stocks in the area, especially because run timing can vary for any anadromous fish. Fish and Game biologists have been gathering genetic data on kings harvested in the fishery, though, and excluding the early summer, the kings harvested in the marine fishery south of the Bluff Point are almost all non-local stocks. Stocks of king salmon elsewhere have been experiencing high production, showing up in Cook Inlet to feed in vast numbers. Even if there are mature kings in the area, the much larger numbers of nonlocal feeder kings would contribute to a type of swamping effect, making it unlikely for the larger kings to be caught, Kerkvliet said. The only one of the group’s proposals that got traction was one that would have eliminated the annual limit on the king salmon harvested in the winter fishery south of the Anchor Point Light. There’s currently no annual limit for winter kings less than 20 inches long, so the proposal would have eliminated the limit on larger ones. Other areas of the state have similar policies. Board member Israel Payton said he felt the proposal would only allow the fishermen to keep slightly bigger salmon, which wouldn’t create too much of a problem. However, the board voted it down 1-6, with Payton voting for it. The commenters during both the public comment day Wednesday and the committee process on Thursday were divided between some wanting to harvest more of the kings because they are nonlocal stocks and are relatively plentiful and others who cautioned on the side of conservation because the kings in the bay are still someone’s kings, even if they aren’t Cook Inlet kings. During the committee discussions Thursday, Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton said it was clear the guideline harvest limit was meant to apply to nonlocal stocks harvested in the area as well. Even if the fish originate in Washington or Oregon, the fisheries managers there are releasing hatchery fish to rebuild the stocks in some of the rivers there that have declined over time or as mitigation for habitat damage like hydroelectric plants. “To say that these are somebody else’s fish so why should we care — we should care,” he said Thursday. “That’s ... not to say that there needs to be a numerical limit, but there needs to be some controls on this fishery relative to recognizing the fact that they are somebody else’s fish.” The proponents said Cook Inlet’s harvest of winter kings is so minimal that managers in the kings’ origin areas do not account for it. Pete Zimmerman, the spokesman for Cook Inlet Recreational Fishermen who submitted all of the group’s proposals, said he was disappointed the board did not pass any of them. The group hailed the genetic study from Fish and Game and presented its own data from coded wire tags recovered from fish harvested by salmon trollers, both of which showed that most of the fish harvested in the winter saltwater king salmon fishery hail from elsewhere. Zimmerman said he thought this would have held more sway. “We were pleading with them all along to pay attention to the science,” he said. He said the group will likely bring the proposals back again but may not wait the full three years until the next Lower Cook Inlet cycle. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Real time data on the Russian River

Cook Inletkeeper is gathering more data on one of the most-loved rivers on the Kenai Peninsula, the Russian River. The Homer-based conservation organization recently installed its first temperature monitoring station on the river, a snow-fed tributary of the Kenai River that flows through the Chugach National Forest and joins the river just west of Cooper Landing. Every year, thousands of anglers flock to the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers to fish for the sockeye salmon that return to spawn there. The station feeds real-time temperature data to Cook Inletkeeper. The public can access it on the organization’s website and track it day-by-day, along with data from two other stream temperature monitoring stations on the Anchor River on the southern Kenai Peninsula and the Deshka River in the Mat-Su Valley. The Russian River will provide data on a stream system that has lakes in it, which behaves differently than the Deshka and the Anchor, said Sue Mauger, science director for Cook Inletkeeper. The influence of Upper and Lower Russian lakes likely keeps the stream warmer later because larger water bodies take a longer time to shed their heat from earlier in the year, she said. The Russian is also a higher system that doesn’t feed directly into Cook Inlet and may stay colder in the summertime than the other two systems, depending on the snowpack levels in the mountains. Snow levels vary and affect both the levels and temperatures of the rivers that depend on them. Last year, there was little snow in the lowlands but above-average snowpack in the mountains, which led to elevated stream levels throughout the season, which anglers noticed because of the additional difficulty in fishing. Cook Inletkeeper has been running the temperature project since 2008 and tried to pick streams that anglers visit frequently, Mauger said. “We know that snow levels are variable from year to year, and it will help us sort of understand what that changing snowpack is doing to our river temperature,” she said. “Especially for a loved and well-fished river.” The monitoring station is stationed below Lower Russian Lake but above the Russian River Falls, where many visitors go to watch the salmon jump in the summer. The U.S. Forest Service and the Kenai Watershed Forum helped out picking a spot for the sensor, making sure there was enough sunlight to power the station, Mauger said. The Kenai Watershed Forum helped sponsor the project through the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership, a part of the National Fish Habitat Partnership, which provides grants for fish habitat restoration and improvement projects. The Kenai Watershed Forum coordinates it, but the steering committee includes members from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Trout Unlimited, the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the U.S Forest Service. Mauger is also a member of the committee. The Russian River project will provide additional numbers for the ongoing data project Cook Inletkeeper has been working on, showing the impact of changing stream temperatures on the fish living in those streams. In spring 2017, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences will publish a paper that Mauger and several colleagues wrote compiling the data on stream temperatures of 48 non-glacial salmon stream systems across the Cook Inlet basin. Stream systems between 2008 and 2012 were consistently warmer than their historical temperatures, exceeding 13 degrees Celsius. When their habitats exceed that temperature, salmon begin to experience thermal stress, according to the report, which has already been published on the journal’s website. Projections of the maximum weekly maximum temperature on the streams project that the trend is likely to continue, according to the report. Mauger said the report was meant to link what the researchers are observing now with warmer water temperatures to the outlook for salmon in southcentral Alaska in the next half-century. She said real-time data can be helpful and provide immediate perspectives, rather than having to wait months to crunch data after the fact. “I really think it’s important to have real-time data to look at,” she said. “We learn a lot when we have pieces of information at the same time.” The Russian River’s temperature readings, as well as those from the Anchor and the Deshka rivers, can be viewed on Cook Inletkeeper’s website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

When it comes to Alaska LNG project, the big elephant in the room is cost

The Alaska LNG Project is still moving toward a final filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but some details remain murky. The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation is finishing up its negotiations to take over the leadership role on the gasline megaproject, negotiating the transition of project assets from the three producer partners, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP. The state-owned corporation is now examining different options for project structure before filing its final application to FERC and is trying to market North Slope gas to worldwide markets, most aggressively in Asia. A report from consulting firm Wood MacKenzie in August identified the Alaska LNG Project as one of the least competitive liquefied natural gas projects in the world, and there is already a global oversupply of LNG. The three producer partners announced their intention to pull back from further investment after the Wood MacKenzie report was released, though they still plan to be involved. Still, it means the leadership and financing falls to AGDC as the project moves into the expensive FERC filing and front-end engineering and design, or FEED, stage. In a presentation to the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce on Wednesday in Kenai, Alaska LNG Project Vice President Fritz Krusen said project managers are looking ahead to the time when the global LNG oversupply wanes — currently projected to fall sometime in the early 2020s. To make sure the Alaska LNG Project is online in time to start producing in that window to meet global need, it needs to get going now, he said. “There are a lot of other projects chasing that gap, so we’ve got to be competitive,” Krusen said. “Second of all ... it takes years and years to get there. We have to make a decision to move, to catch that window, fairly soon.” To reduce the high production costs and make the project more competitive, the state has suggested looking at other financing models, such as soliciting third-party investment or seeking tax-exempt status for the project’s income and tax-exempt financing for bonds to fund the project. Gov. Bill Walker has said he is “confident” the state can secure the exemption. A period of sustained low oil prices have led to pressure on oil producers, and that contributes to decisions to re-evaluate the project financing, Krusen said in an interview. “Low oil prices have caused everybody to think differently,” he said. One consequence of that tax exemption, though, may fall on local governments. Through property taxes or payment in lieu of taxes, known as PILT, local governments like the Kenai Peninsula Borough stand to gain significantly from the presence of the LNG Project. However, if it becomes tax-exempt, that income may be at risk. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre voiced his concerns to Krusen at the luncheon. “There’s been no communication at all at this point to the local government about what that means,” he said. Krusen replied that he wasn’t sure how that would play out yet, but the AGDC hasn’t settled on it — it’s just an option being considered at the moment. “(The tax exemption) is something we need to investigate,” he said. “It’s just one of these things that it might be a lever. It might not, and how it would play out on the federal, state and local scene, I don’t know.” The same goes for land purchases. Since the Alaska LNG Project began snapping up acreage in the central part of Nikiski in 2014, there has been much hand-wringing in the community about the future of the project and how and when lands will be acquired. Until the transition of assets from the producer partners to AGDC is complete, that won’t be certain, Krusen said. “That is a great LNG plant site,” he said. “So if we do get the transition behind us, then yes, at some point … we will get back in the saddle and attempt to resume getting property to build the LNG plant.” Project managers are still working on the plans for the relocation of the Kenai Spur Highway, the ideas for which were originally presented to the public more than a year ago. At this point, no preferred route has been identified for the highway, though the managers are working on the regulatory path forward for the road, said Josselyn O’Connor, community stakeholder advisor to the project. Borough administration asked that the project managers identify a preferred route as soon as possible in a set of comments to FERC submitted Oct. 5. “Though the Alaska LNG has, in the past, done a good job of briefing and updating the Kenai Borough government and area residents of the highway relocation planning effort, those discussions have essentially ceased in recent months, and the silence is building to frustration among area residents,” the borough comments state. “The borough urges whichever entity(ies) emerges as project sponsors to actively resume those discussions with detailed mapping, detailed selection criteria and a commitment to narrowing down the options next year.” The AGDC and Walker are busy marketing the project overseas to potential customers in Asia. Krusen said the Alaska LNG Project has some advantages for Asian markets over others because of its relative proximity to them and its cold environment, making it easier to transport LNG, which is supercooled and condensed. The case would be different if this project were being developed by a producer with LNG in its portfolio — because this is the state’s one chance to market the North Slope gas, marketing is necessary, Krusen said. “We have to go out and make contact with the banks, the investment groups, that sort of thing, and we’re developing a strategy to do that,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Tourism industry is booming in Alaska

Alaska likely saw another record-breaking tourism year in 2016, according to preliminary numbers from the industry. More than 1 million cruise ship passengers came through the state for the first time since 2009, according to the Alaska chapter of the Cruse Lines International Association. Border crossings from Canada were up 13 percent and numbers of outbound air traffic passengers between May and August were up 6 percent, both figures climbing for the second year in a row, according to figures from the Juneau-based research firm the McDowell Group. The sales tax figures aren’t finalized yet, but it looks like another record-breaking year on the Kenai Peninsula s as well, said Shannon Davis, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, in a presentation Tuesday to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. Kenai Fjords National Park saw 14 percent more visitors this year than last, lining up with the McDowell Group numbers, she said. The Kenai Peninsula is home to a booming tourism industry. Gross sales in visitor-industry related businesses reached $271 million in 2015, employing up to 4,217 people at a peak in July, according to the 2016 Situations and Prospects report prepared by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District. That includes accommodations, food service, local attractions like Seward’s SeaLife Center, guided land and water services and other revenue sources like the state’s commercial passenger vessel tax, according to the report. The Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council receives funds from the borough assembly annually — about $50,000 in fiscal year 2017. Though the organization has always turned in quarterly reports, Davis said she plans to make regular reports in person to the assembly. Marketing Efforts However, not all the news was good. In the course of the budget cuts across the state this year, the governor vetoed funding for tourism marketing, reducing the state’s support to approximately $1.5 million from a budgeted $4.5 million. That number was already significantly reduced from $9.6 million in fiscal year 2016 and about $17.9 million in fiscal year 2015. “Industry leaders have decided that this number is just completely unacceptable for the tourism industry to be able to remain competitive with … our competitors,” Davis said. “They are looking at different ways that they can turn things around for the industry.” The Legislature’s intent is for the industry to find ways to sustain itself to rely less on general fund dollars, according to the appropriation bill. The Alaska Travel Industry Association is working through details of how to create a system that will allow the industry to fund its own marketing efforts. One idea being debated is to create a Tourism Improvement District in which tourism-related businesses would be assessed a fee that would go to statewide marketing efforts, said Sarah Leonard, the president and executive director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “We feel like we’re following through with what the Legislature has asked us to do and work with (stakeholders) to get it fleshed out,” Leonard said. A Tourism Improvement District would have to be created by state statute. Other cities and state have enacted them on a variety of levels and have shown success at generating marketing funds, according to the Destination Marketing Association International. If it were created, businesses would be asked to self-assess what portion of their revenue comes from tourism through a formula. Businesses would be identified by their Internal Revenue Service tax codes, Leonard said. The fees would then go into a fund to develop statewide marketing efforts, she said. Right now, the association is gathering feedback from its businesses as to whether they would support such an effort. If something came forward, it likely wouldn’t be for another two or three years, she said. The Alaska Travel Industry Association works to complement local tourism marketing organizations like KPTMC. However, there are efforts that may be beyond the financial or logistical reach for local organizations that would be better for a statewide association to handle, like national and international TV ad placement, she said. “The whole conversation has been around statewide tourism marketing so that as a state we can continue to compete as a state,” she said. “…there are things that can be more targeted at the local level for different types of visitors too. But this (Tourism Improvement District) model has been focused on implementing this at a state level.” Recently, Alaska hosted the Adventure Travel Trade Association conference in Anchorage, the association’s first meeting in North America. The meeting brough international attention to Alaska as a visitor industry destination, something businesses in the state are interested in pursuing further, Leonard said. Locally, KPTMC is boosting its efforts with a new website, which is attracting more traffic and advertisements, and through its annual Discovery Guide, a print magazine with information about activities on the peninsula. The organization also recently raised membership dues for its approximately 286 members to $225 annually from $150. The new fee better reflects services the members receive through the new website, Davis told the assembly. KPTMC’s year runs from October to October, and membership is only down by four members from last year so far, she said. The increased fees don’t seem to have discouraged many businesses from becoming members, she said. “We are anticipating that we’ll make that up easily before the end of the year with the new website,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

What's killing Susitna sockeye salmon?

If any fish population in Upper Cook Inlet could be considered in trouble, Shell Lake’s sockeye could. The lake in the Matanuska-Susitna region, located northwest of the village of Skwentna between the Skwentna and Yentna rivers, has long supported a population of sockeye salmon. When the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association first studied the sockeye returns there in the 1980s, the lake seemed to sustain a reasonable smolt outmigration and adult return each year. A 1989 Alaska Department of Fish and Game study indicated that the Shell Lake produced about 10 percent of the total sockeye population returning to the Susitna River. That’s not the case any more. In 2015, only three sockeye returned to the lake, according to CIAA’s counts. The total is an estimate, though, because of partial video loss from the video weir the association uses, according to its 2015 report on Shell Lake. A total of 59 smolts left the lake the same year. Compared to the lake’s historical data, the decrease is drastic. In 2006, approximately 69,800 adults returned to the lake and about 80,600 smolts outmigrated in 2007. CIAA studied the lake again around 2006 and has watched the population decline since, said Gary Fandrei, the organization’s executive director. “After a few years (of declining returns), we said if this goes on one more year, it would be doomsday for the fish population,” he said. The dwindling population has the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission alarmed enough to ask the state to step in. The commission, which represents the Mat-Su Borough on fish and wildlife issues, submitted a non-regulatory proposal to the Board of Fisheries to designate Shell Lake sockeye a stock of conservation concern, the most severe designation in the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy. The concern is that without intervention, Shell Lake’s sockeye will die out completely, said Terry Nininger, a member of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission who also testified at the Board of Fisheries’ work session in Soldotna Oct. 18. “There’s not a lot of local angler effort except for the locals that live around the lake,” he said. “… It’s more of a concern about the fish, not about the angler effort.” There are likely a number of factors in the decline, chief of which is invasive northern pike predation. The infestation of pike in the northern Cook Inlet area is fairly well documented and pike populations have been identified in more than 100 lakes in the broader Susitna and Matanuska drainages. Though the freshwater fish are native to Alaska north and west of the Alaska Range, they are invasive in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska and can devastate salmon populations because they are voracious predators on juvenile salmonids. Individual pike have been discovered with dozens of juvenile salmon in their stomachs. CIAA, which collects eggs from returning Shell Lake sockeye, rears them to smolt in its Moose Pass-based Trail Lakes Hatchery and returns them to be released in the lake, also nets the pike for population control. However, because of the nature of netting, they catch mostly the larger pike while the younger, smaller pike are still a problem, Fandrei said. There have also been problems with two diseases that affect salmon and beaver dams blocking passage. Though the diseases, both caused by parasites, seemed to have abated for a little while, they were detected again this summer, he said. CIAA regularly surveys the area and creates notches in beaver dams that could be blocking fish passage, he said. More fish returned this summer — approximately 215 according to a record copy Nininger submitted to the Board of Fisheries — and CIAA was able to collect eggs again, Fandrei said. However, when fish populations dwindle down to a certain point, they can’t sustain themselves, he said. “(The egg-take and stocking effort was) an effort to save the gene pool, to keep the gene pool alive in that stock of fish,” Fandrei said. “We had seen a very small number of fish coming back. Less than 10 fish might just be strays that wander up there from somewhere.” The Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to see the state switch the designation to a stock of conservation concern and restrict harvest on the sockeye stock across the board for all user groups: commercial, sportfishing and personal-use, as well as a more aggressive program to deal with the pike infestation, Nininger said. “If the department decided to take a step of making it a conservation concern, they could restrict the fish harvest both commercially and the fish going up that stream both for sport fishing and personal use,” he said. “They could restrict the catch … and that would certainly help.” Through the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy, Fish and Game designates stocks of concern if a particular fish population fails to meet its management goals. There are three categories: yield concern, management concern and conservation concern. There are currently 13 stocks of concern statewide, according to Fish and Game’s website, and eight are in Cook Inlet. The Shell Lake stock would be the only one of conservation concern in the state. The challenge would be for Fish and Game to determine how to reduce harvest on those sockeye specifically, especially in the marine fishery, where set gillnet and drift gillnet fishermen can harvest sockeye of mixed stocks. Fish and Game has conducted genetic studies on the mixed stocks of sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet, but a conservation concern designation would come with additional restrictions. The Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission also asked the Board of Fisheries to consider upping the stock of concern designations on the Susitna River sockeye salmon stock from yield concern to management concern, though the Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee asked for the Board of Fisheries to repeal the stock of yield concern designation on the Susitna River sockeye stock, saying the designation was based on a faulty sonar estimate and repealing the designation would open up more commercial fishing. The Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee also asked for upgrades on multiple king salmon stocks of concern. A recent court ruling has thrown a wrench into state management of Cook Inlet’s marine fisheries as well. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association in a lawsuit over the 2011 removal of several Alaska salmon fisheries from the federal fishery management plan. No decision has yet been made on how the fishery will proceed next season. Both Nininger and Fandrei said the stock of conservation concern on Shell Lake’s sockeye salmon could help bring needed attention to the issue, and both said the conditions should be better studied. “We feel the state needs to raise awareness across the board,” Nininger said. “There’s a variety of different ways that could be approached. We are concerned that the management concern level isn’t getting the attention it needs.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Many professionals across Alaska will have to pay more to work

Juniper Lanmon-Freeman cried the first time she attended the birth of a child. A licensed midwife, Lanmon-Freeman now delivers two to three babies per month for mothers at their homes. But the job goes far beyond that — by the time she delivers the child, she’s spent weeks with the mother. “(On) my last birth, I visited her 13 times before she had her baby,” she said. “When they’re in labor, you’ve built this relationship with them. It’s more like a sister relationship or a good female friend.” Lanmon-Freeman is one of just 63 licensed midwives in Alaska, and one of two on the central Kenai Peninsula. Three more are licensed in Homer, and the majority practice in Anchorage. Sometimes, when she’s attending a birth and another one of her clients goes into labor, the peninsula’s midwives will step in for each other, Lanmon-Freeman said. “We have an agreement that if (a mother goes into labor) and you’re at another birth and you can’t go, (we’ll cover each other),” she said. “We’ve got some grey hairs out of it.” However, next year, the picture will likely change. The cost to obtain a direct-entry midwife license — a license to practice as a midwife primarily in out-of-hospital settings — in Alaska will more than double, rising from $1,750 to $3,800 for a biennial certification. That doesn’t include the initial application fee and the fees for certifications for apprenticeships, which midwives have to complete before becoming eligible for full certification. For morticians, the fee is increasing from $100 to $150 every two years. For naturopaths, license applications fees are increasing by a factor of 10 from $50 to $500, and a biennial license will cost $1,200 instead of the former $470. It doesn’t include all the licenses. For some, fees are actually going down. For example, behavioral analysts will only have to pay $500 for their licenses next year instead of $1,000. The state of Alaska requires occupational licenses for a variety of professions, from doctors to underground storage tank workers to pawnbrokers. Each of those licenses has to be renewed with the state every two years for the professional to legally work. It’s not a set list — the Legislature can add a licensing requirement for occupations at any time, as in the case of massage therapists, who were not required to be licensed until 2015. The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development administers licenses through its Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing. Boards such as the Medical Board or the Board of Direct-Entry Midwives manage many of the programs, but those that aren’t are administered directly by the division. Alaska statute requires every occupational licensing program to balance its operating fees with the revenue from professional licenses. The division staff evaluates the fees every year to determine if they have to increase or if they can decrease them to stay solvent, said Sara Chambers, division operations manager. “That sounds like a pretty straightforward business practice,” Chambers said. “… Fee programs may or may not be changed. We will often change fees before renewal. It makes a lot more sense to put a new fee in place in advance (of renewals).” The licensing programs don’t rely on the state general fund to operate, so it isn’t the state budget deficit that’s pushing the fees up — it’s increasing investigation and legal fees and imbalances between the operating and licensing costs. “Part of our cost is hearing costs,” said Angela Birt, who oversees the investigations in the division. “We’re represented by the Department of Law … a lot of the cost you see about investigations are typically related to legal proceedings.” Last year, the division conducted 600 investigations, according to a July 2016 report to the Legislature. Investigations can range in complexity, taking years in some cases. The complexity pushes up the cost. But the person being investigated doesn’t pay for the investigation — that’s borne by the program. Fines paid as the result of investigations go back to the state’s general fund, Chambers said. As a result, the staff that works on the investigations keeps tight timesheets. “Generally, they’re trying to count down to the quarter of the hour,” Birt said. Chambers said there had been some concerns raised over the years about the way the licensees bear the cost while the fines go to the general fund. “That’s been a concern that the good apples are essentially paying for the bad apples,” Chambers said. “We’ve worked on it different ways, different times throughout the years.” Rep. Kurt Olson (R-Soldotna), the outgoing representative for the central Kenai Peninsula, proposed a bill in April 2013 at the request of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development “to levelize the dramatic changes in professional licensing fees,” according to the minutes from the House Finance Committee in April 2014. The bill would have changed that law to fund the personnel costs for investigations out of the general fund instead of licensing fees. The Alaska Nurses Association testified in opposition to the move, expressing concerns about additional pressure on the general fund in a time of declining revenues. Patricia Senner, who testified to the House Finance Committee on behalf of the association, said the association instead suggested the Legislature set up a fund to deal with the most expensive investigations rather than all of them. “From a historical perspective, the decision to have licensee fees pay for the cost of the Boards was made during a time of diminishing state revenues,” Senner said in her testimony. “We do not think over the next several years the Division is going to want to be reliant on a diminishing source of general fund revenues when they could have had a more steady income source with licensee fees. If the Division can’t get enough general funds to pay for their investigators, how are they going to prioritize investigations?” The bill was last heard and held in the House Finance Committee in April 2014, according to the Alaska State Legislature’s website. Lanmon-Freeman said she runs her business on a fairly tight margin. She accepts Medicaid and Denali KidCare, both of which pay lower reimbursement rates than private insurers. She also charges between $6,000 and $10,000 for a birth, which includes the prenatal and post-natal visits, she said. A study published July 2015 in the trade journal Health Affairs found that hospital costs for low-risk childbirth varied widely among facilities in 2011. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the national average covered cost in 2013 was about $13,118 for a delivery without complications. In Alaska, that same procedure cost about $15,477 in 2013, according to CMS. However, that doesn’t include the cost of pre- and post-natal care, medications, travel or the additional costs incurred by complications. CMS did not publish data for Alaska on costs for a C-section without complications, but nationally the average is $20,179, according to the CMS data. Alaska tends to be more expensive than the national average for health care procedures. Midwives are able to offer more personal care without the risk of hospital-acquired infections or travel, Lanmon-Freeman said. In the end, for many mothers on Medicaid or Denali KidCare who use midwives, the relatively controlled costs and low risk of complication save the state money in the long run, but the increase in licensing fees threatens their ability to keep prices low, she said. “It’s pushing a lot of midwives into a predicament: do you continue practicing something that you love, that your clients love, but can you afford it?” Lanmon-Freeman said. “…You just do it for the love of it.” She said she was concerned that as the fees continue to increase, it may drive more midwives to not reapply, increasing the pressure on the remaining midwives in the program to bear the cost of licensing and regulation, pushing fees even higher. Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing Director Janey Hovenden said in testimony to the Legislature in January 2016 that one of the challenges of setting fees is to set up a path to get programs out of an operating deficit while not pricing people out of the occupation. Auditors have suggested some fixes for such a problem, such as combining the midwife licensing program with the nursing licensing program, which has approximately 16,000 licensees, Birt said. To anticipate costs, the division developed a cost prediction tool that is essentially a spreadsheet that allows managers to test different license costs and project the effect on the program’s bottom line in the future. The future is hard to predict because the number of licensees is always uncertain, Chambers said. Program fees pitch up and down over the years as the division corrects deficits and works to reduce surpluses. “If there’s a spike in investigations, that may cost (a particular) program a little more money in the next cycle,” she said. “The tool gives us a consistent and transparent way to estimate those. At the end of the day, it is an estimate.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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