GUEST COMMENTARY: Manage Inlet to protect Northern District stocks of concern
In 2012 Gov. Sean Parnell stepped out for the first time ever and declared a statewide king salmon fishing disaster; enormous portions of King salmon water were closed to fishing. He established a task force to determine the cause of our king salmon returns failure.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has made salmon issues one of the top five legislative issues for the year. The 2007 Sports Fishing Economic Survey showed for the first time ever the economic importance of sports fishing to Alaskans. In the Cook Inlet area, sportfishing produced approximately $750 million of business and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough it produces between $80 million and $150 million in revenues to the Valley economy, making it one of the largest sources of income for the Valley.
In the past, more than 300,000 angler days were spent filing freezers of Alaskans. Because of declining salmon returns coupled with heavily restricted fishing regulations those numbers have dropped below 200,000 angler days.
This was not the first time that a salmon disaster has occurred in the Northern District salmon fisheries. The Board of Fisheries has declared six of our king stocks and the entire Susitna River sockeye stock as stocks of concerns. There are 11 separate stocks of concerns statewide and the Northern District of Cook Inlet has seven of them with at least three other stocks that will be qualified for the 2014 Board of Fisheries evaluation for a stock of concern status.
The Little Susitna River coho salmon have missed their escapement for four years and are on the brink of being qualified for stock of concern status. Alaskans fishing the Parks Highway streams are going to be restricted out of king fishing with a season limit of two kings; and coho could be severely restricted on the Little Susitna with a limit of two.
Valley legislators have made the salmon disaster one of the major issues facing them this session, Rep. Bill Stoltze has filed a bill, raising the priority of the personal use fishery, and Rep. Mark Neuman has filed a bill that will mandate more conservative management actions when a salmon stock is declared a stock of concern by the Board of Fisheries.
Both of these bills are currently being held in the House Resources Committee, Fisheries Subcommittee. It’s questionable whether or not they will be brought from the Fishers subcommittee for floor debate. Sen. Mike Dunleavy and Rep. Stoltze held a finance subcommittee hearing on the salmon problems in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough streams and rivers to try and determine what is needed to reverse the steady decline of our salmon. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission provided an in-depth briefing and question and answer session in Juneau.
Cook Inlet salmon management is centered on managing the Kenai and Kasilof river sockeye returns. The major problem with the current management strategies is that the department does not have the data needed to establish escapement goals in Upper Cook Inlet salmon streams or the data to properly manage the Cook Inlet commercial intercept fishers in central position of Cook Inlet.
A prime example is the biologists’ inability to accurately forecast the annual sockeye return until after the 25th of July and they are unable to forecast the returns of cohos, chums and pinks for the current year.
So these mixed stocks are to a large extent are sacrificed to the commercial drift fishery, directly causing the failure of upper Cook Inlet returns, and limiting the ability of Alaskan being able to fish or dipnet for their winter food supply.
The 2013 salmon forecast is to be as large if not larger the than 2012, which was one of the largest in recent years. The sockeye forecast is for 6.7 million and a harvest of 4.9 million, which will allow the department to implement the 4.6 million trigger that is authorized in the Kenai River Sockeye Management Plan.
This trigger authorizes the department to remove the safety procedures and conservation corridor that is intended move Northern District salmon through the Central District and allows managers to use the drift fleet as desired to keep from over escapement of sockeyes to the Kenai River and the Kasilof River.
The most important thing that Alaskan personal use and sport fishers can do is to contact the governor’s office (907-465-3500) and encourage him to prohibit the use of the 4.6 million trigger in the Kenai River Sockeye Management Plan. That will keep the drift fleet restricted the Conservation Corridor and allow northern bound salmon to migrate through Cook Inlet and into their natal streams.
Bruce Knowles is the chairman of Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission.