Commentary: Another fishing disaster for setnet fleet must be avoided
This year was a disaster for the east side setnet fleet. How bad was it, what was the cause, what should have been done and what can be done in the future?
The east side setnet, or ESSN, fleet caught 94,530 sockeye all season. In 2011 they caught 1.88 million sockeye. The 2012 catch was 5 percent of 2011’s catch. The drift fleet caught 3.2 million sockeye in 2011 and 2.9 million in 2012.
Their 2012 catch was 91 percent of the 2011 catch. The previous 10-year average for the ESSN fleet is 1.57 million sockeye per year. The 2012 harvest was 6 percent of average. Six percent of average is brutal!
How long has it been since an ESSN harvest was lower than 2012? In 1971 they set a low record by taking just 111,505 sockeye. The 2012 harvest broke the bottom out of that record, being just 85 percent of it. Another nadir in Cook Inlet sockeye harvests happened in 1958.
That year commercial fishers caught just 470,000—the lowest harvest all the way back to 1908. The ESSN fleet, however, came away with 134,907 sockeye in 1958. The annual Cook Inlet sockeye harvest was over 800,000 every year between 1910 and 1956. Drift fishing didn’t commence in Cook Inlet until 1947. So before that date annual harvests were divided only between setnets and traps. The record low set by east side setnetters in 2012 may not have been seen in almost 100 years.
What caused the disaster? A weak king salmon run coupled with a “decoupling” directive from the Board of Fisheries. At an early 2011 meeting the board directed (Alaska Department of) Fish and Game managers to decouple east side setnets and drift nets.
Since both groups target Kenai and Kasilof river sockeye, managers have always attempted to fish them simultaneously. Decoupling is an effort to reduce east side king salmon harvests. The drift/setnet harvest share has always fluctuated based on weather, salmon entry patterns, and management strategy.
In 2008 the ESSN fleet got 55 percent of the Upper Inlet commercial sockeye harvest. In 2011, following the decoupling, they got 36 percent — their lowest share in 17 years. In 2012 the ESSN fleet caught just 3 percent of the Upper Inlet commercial sockeye harvest. Three percent!
Decoupling set the stage. Magnifying the risk for disaster, Fish and Game has, over the past few years, realized that their system for counting Kenai River king salmon was undependable.
They implemented a much better system, but unfortunately the new counting method had just a couple seasons of history by which to gauge the meaning of new-style sonar numbers. Kenai River king salmon stocks have been in a decline and the run seemed to be weak so Fish and Game closed east side setnetters on their opening day.
Following this action, Kasilof River sockeye did not appear on the beach in any great numbers. That allowed managers the luxury of keeping setnets mostly closed until sport fishing for kings also closed.
What should have been done? First, in a meeting in Kenai with Fish and Game Commissioner (Cora) Campbell in late July, she revealed that her staff had already been making plans for weak king salmon stock management.
“We realized king salmon could be a problem and began having discussions last winter on how to manage for that,” Campbell told Borough Mayor Navarre and a small group of setnetters.
Campbell had ample opportunity to relay those discussions to the setnet community. Instead, on May 15 Fish and Game published a forecast for an improved king salmon run. The Commissioner should have contacted setnetters and warned them that they were planning to take any king salmon shortage as a cue to close setnetting.
Fishers could have thus scaled down operations, saving each of them thousands of dollars. And they could have begun discussing how to make radical changes in their harvest methods, and sought help from the state for implementing such changes.
New methods could have been tested in 2012.
Furthermore, the East Foreland stat area should have been allowed to fish most of the season. In 2011 East Foreland caught 83 kings while catching about 103,000 sockeye — a ratio of 1,241 sockeye for every king. Salamatof Beach offered similar sockeye-sweet ratios. They fished July 16 and caught 46,005 sockeye and 36 kings, a ratio of 1,278 to one. Had they been allowed to fish a day in late July, I bet they could have tripled their sockeye catch in an even more lopsided ratio. It would seem that Commissioner Campbell didn’t give much thought to cautious use of setnets when “having discussions last winter.” It appears that these top talkers simply ignored setnetters, in their hurry to consider how to manage the drift fleet.
I’ll write again in a few weeks to introduce Selective Harvest Modules, an experimental method for reducing setnet king mortality to near zero.
Brent Johnson started setnetting in 1962 and gained insight by working for men who entered the industry much earlier. He has served as chairman or president for: a Fish and Game Advisory Committee, Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, and Kasilof Historical Association. He is also the author of Dory Slant, a setnet newsletter. Johnson currently represents District 7 on the Borough Assembly.