ADFG, Mat-Su officials begin work on fisheries research

With the Knik Glacier in the background, a group fishes for silver salmon headed up Jim Creek along the Knik River near Palmer. Angler activity has been on the decline in the Mat-Su Borough, which is slated to receive $7 million in research funding in the 2014 state budget.

WASILLA — Cook Inlet salmon research and management was at the heart of a May 15 meeting in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission met with Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials and other interested parties to discuss plans for future research, and what that could mean for fisheries management in Cook Inlet.

ADFG and the borough received a combined $7 million of the $15 million total from the Legislature for various Mat-Su fisheries projects, more than any other region.

Parnell approved the funding when he signed the capital budget with only a few vetoes May 21.

The Legislature’s capital budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1, includes $4.5 million for ADFG to do research related to Northern District and Susitna drainage salmon, and $2.5 million for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to do research and habitat protection work. The plans also include some enhancement projects.

Sockeye, coho, chum, pink and king salmon could all be studied in the proposed plans.

ADFG’s Legislative Liaison Ben Mulligan said the department wanted to work with the borough so that both pools of money could be used as effectively as possible. The research plans are not finalized yet, pending as collaboration between the borough and the state continues.

ADFG’s proposed work includes enumerating and tagging fish in freshwater streams and rivers, habitat work to mitigate beaver dams and eradicate Northern pike, and developing a genetic baseline as the first step toward understanding salmon migration.

Mulligan said that some work could begin in the latter part of the summer and into the fall, although other funded projects would take place next summer, due to the timing of salmon runs.

ADFG representatives also talked about some ideas for enhancement, which could boost populations in certain streams in the short-term.

The goal is to better understand what is happening with Northern District salmon, both in Cook Inlet and when they get to freshwater.

Eventually, a better understanding could translate into management that helps fishermen prosecute the fishery more selectively.

Alaska Board of Fisheries member and Talkeetna lodge owner Tom Kluberton, who co-chaired the Upper Cook Inlet task force with former member Vince Webster, asked ADFG if the research proposed could eventually provide enough information for the board to manage Cook Inlet commercial fishermen in a targeted fashion more similar to Bristol Bay.

Such fishing concentrated at the mouth of rivers is called “terminal” fishing.

Kluberton said he’d be responsive to such a move at a future Board of Fisheries meeting.

The commission is also looking for a change in Cook Inlet management regimes.

After the meeting, Mat-Su borough assembly member Jim Colver talked about his thoughts on those changes.

“We’ve gotta be a little more strategic and surgical about how we harvest fish,” Colver said, emphasizing that he thought any plans should preserve both commercial and sport harvests.

Before management can change, Colver said more research is needed, including a better understand of the stream of origin for salmon caught in the lower and middle Cook Inlet.

“It’s all going to come back to sound science,” Colver said.

Paul Shadura from the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a group representing setnetters, said that while surgical openings can provide some benefits, there are other concerns for Cook Inlet fishermen if the management regime changes.

Right now, east side setnetters harvest primarily Kenai and Kasilof river salmon, but the drift fleet catches about 15 percent of “other” salmon, some of which are bound for the Northern District.

If the drift fleet was managed in tighter corridors, or closer to the beach, to harvest the Kenai and Kasilof fish, the proportions in the fishery would change, and it might be difficult to allow both user groups their historical harvest, Shadura said.

Setnetters do see some benefits to more precise management. Shadura said that targeted openings along the beach could allow harvest by some users when others needed to stand down, and some fishing opportunity that still protected kings would be an asset.

That’s an idea the fleet was supported, and even asked for, in the past.

Shadura did not attend the meeting May 15, but had received some information about the discussions and said he could comment on some of the ideas and research presented.

Research plans

Although the collaborative research between ADFG and the borough will mostly begin next summer, the department also has some new work planned for this summer.

Most of the new work is being funded by the Alaska Energy Authority’s studies as part of the Susitna-Watana hydro project.

The AEA-funded research includes king salmon studies on the Susitna River and tributaries.

ADFG’s Bob Clark said the Little Susitna weir is being moved this year, and the department will also be installing four additional weirs on Lake Creek, Montana Creek, Talachulitna and the Chulitna.

The weirs will help enumerate kings.

A study with radio tags will also help better understand Susitna River salmon by seeing where the fish go to spawn. In the future, the department can use that info to do genetic mark and recapture work.

Ultimately, ADFG would like to know what the different migration patterns in Cook Inlet are for various Northern District stocks.

Fish and Wildlife Commission members were receptive to many of those ideas.

Larry Engel, a former Board of Fisheries member on the commission, said he thought the department’s plans were positive.

Howard Delo, a member of the Mat-Su commission, also talked about the need for longer-term funding for ADFG’s work.

The projects, he said, sounded like steps toward needed information. But more than one or two years worth of research is needed.

“We really don’t want to see it go away just ‘cause the capital budget was funded one year,” he said.

Colver said radio tagging was a good start toward figuring where species go at certain times.

Beyond research and management ideals, participants said the meeting represented a step toward fishermen from different sectors working together.

Arni Thomson said the Kenai-based Alaska Salmon Alliance supports much of the proposed habitat work, the enhancement projects and the genetics studies.

He said he appreciated Colver’s focus on working together, both between fishing sectors and regions.

Commercial fishermen and sport fishermen both play a role in local economies, and need access to fish, Colver said. Cook Inlet fisheries need to transition from allocative fish wars to science-based decision-making, Colver said.

“Who can yell the loudest, that’s not moving the ball forward,” Colver said.

Rather than developing a user group to work on future research and management plans, Colver said he thought ADFG needs to take the lead.

If the department is committed to science, the Board of Fisheries can make any decisions, he said. But it’s really incumbent on the department to do the science and come up with management solutions.

“They’re the experts,” Colver said.

Thomson said his biggest hope is that sport and commercial fishermen from the Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula boroughs will be able to approach the Cook Inlet board of fisheries meetings next year with a unified approach.

The Mat-Su commission is slated to meet again with ADFG to hash out the research plans.

Molly Dischner can be reached at