Board adopts further restrictions to Cook Inlet setnet fishery

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 11:43am
A crowd gathered with Alaska Board of Fisheries members Tom Kluberton and Orville Huntington after the board voted in favor of a new, higher escapement goal for late-run Kenai river king salmon Feb. 3 in Anchorage. The vote was reconsidered and voted down Feb. 4, but on Feb. 5 the board adopted a new management plan that has an even higher target.

Emotions ran high Feb. 5 as the Alaska Board of Fisheries deliberated a board-member generated proposal that outlined a new plan to pair restrictions between commercial setnet fishermen and in-river fishers who harvest the struggling Kenai River king salmon stock.

As it became clear during deliberations that the board would be making substantive changes to the way the commercial setnet fisheries occur in July and August, more members of the group stood and moved away from the board to the back of the hall leaving the vast majority of the audience seats empty.

The restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery, if fully actuated, could result in a 50 percent reduction in effort causing an unknown reduction in sockeye harvest — the salmon species primarily targeted by the group.

The language amends the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan to include “step-down measures” that board members said were meant to be paired with step-down measures in the in-river fishery when king salmon stocks are returning in low numbers.

According to the new plan, from July 1 to July 31, if the in-river return is projected to be fewer than 22,500 fish — the midpoint of the current escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may limit the sportfishery to no bait, or catch-and-release fishing and the East Side setnet fishery will be capped at 36 hours per week.

Under the plan, if the in-river fishery is restricted to catch and release, setnetters will be limited to only one 12-hour period per week rather than the two regular 12-hour periods.

The 2014 preseason forecast for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon is estimated at 6.1 million fish across all rivers and streams, with 1.8 million needed for escapement leaving 4.3 million available for harvest, or about 500,000 more fish than the 20-year average.

Under the old plan and if the 2014 forecast materialized, setnetters would have had up to 74 hours per week available to fish a sockeye run of that size.

The plan also includes setnet gear reduction options that include potential limits on the number or size of the nets in the water.

When the fishery transitions into Aug. 1 — the date the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan ceases to apply — the projected escapement of king salmon into the Kenai River must be more than 22,500 fish or commercial set gillnet fishers will be restricted to 36 hours total for the two-week period.

Tom Kluberton, board member from Talkeetna, said he submitted the proposed changes after years of discussion with fishers who have been struggling to find a balance in harvest of abundant sockeye salmon when king salmon stocks are limited.

The move could allocate several hundred thousand sockeye out of the commercial fishery in order to limit the group’s harvest of king salmon.

“This is allocative. That’s our job,” said Board of Fisheries Chairman Karl Johnstone.

Kluberton said the allocation was an unavoidable consequence of protecting the vulnerable Kenai River king salmon stock.

“We’re being asked to turn a blind eye to kings and we just can’t do that,” he said after the meeting. “Our first priority is conservation.”

During later testimony, Kluberton reminded the audience several times that ADFG could use emergency order authority to liberalize the setnet fishery.

However, Jim Butler, a commercial setnet fisher and representative of the commercial fishing advocacy group the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said he did not believe the loss of fishing opportunity was being shared equally between the commercial and in-river users.

 “We’ve heard a lot of talk about pairing the burdens of dealing with this perceived conservation problem,” Butler said. “Now what we’ve seen is 50 percent of the opportunity that the East Side setnet fishery has, goes away. There has been nothing in the river that been changed except ‘not-bait.’ There’s been not one less motorboat day, not one less drift boat day, there has been no limitation on the number of hours the commercial guide industry fishes.”

Butler said he did not believe ADFG would open the setnet fishery for more hours in August until it reached the in-river return of 22,500 fish.

According to the ADFG preseason outlook for the late run of Kenai River king salmon, the total run is expected to be 19,700 fish.

“They put another 7,000 fish in the recommended goal for the river in August,” Butler said. “They’ve taken away the department’s management flexibility.”

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a sportfishing advocacy group, said his group supported the board’s changes.

“We support what the board did, it’s an important addition to the management plan,” he said.

Both Kluberton and board member Reed Morisky from Fairbanks said during deliberations that they supported the gear restriction options available to setnetters and welcomed new data that would come from some fishers using shorter nets.

There has been ongoing debate in public testimony and private commentary during the meeting on the lack of consistent data on whether king salmon run lower in the water column than sockeye salmon and could avoid being intercepted if setnetters were to use shallower nets.

Kluberton said new rules incentivized the use of shallower nets.

Morisky said the king salmon are too important to risk the health of the stock.

“What we’re talking about here is the state fish of Alaska. It’s not an arctic grayling, it’s not a chum, it’s the king salmon … it’s our state symbol and we’ve taken it down to next to nothing,” he said. “These salmon have a great capability of springing back. If we manage this right, we could have our runs back and we could be trying to figure out what we’re going to do with a great abundance of kings and reds.”

Sharp shift

The board action Feb. 5 increasing the in-river threshold for management decisions was a sharp turnaround from what took place the previous day.

Late Feb. 3, Alaska’s Board of Fisheries agreed to raise the escapement goal for the late run of Kenai River king salmon, voted and adjourned for the evening, enraging many commercial fishers in the room who then split into small, animated groups arguing with others in the conference room at the Egan Center or pleading their cases to board members who stayed behind to listen to the criticism their decision wrought.

But, by 9 a.m. Feb. 4, the same board shifted 180 degrees and voted on a motion to reconsider that left inriver guides and sport users in the same place their commercial fishing counterparts had been just the night before.

Even some in the commercial fishing community were unsure of what to make of the sudden reversal.

“We’ll see what comes next,” said Chris Every, a commercial setnetter who fishes sites immediately south of the mouth of the Kenai River.

Kluberton, one of four who voted in favor of raising the goal from its current range of 15,000 to 30,000 fish to 16,600 to 30,000, motioned to reconsider when the Board of Fisheries convened at 8 a.m. to continue the nearly two-week meeting on a host of fish-related issues affecting the Cook Inlet.

Kluberton, who had used the idea of providing a “buffer” for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game against putting too few fish in the river under the current escapement goal, reversed his opinion.

“What was brought to my attention last night alleviated those concerns by way of realizing that the department is ... they’re learning. They’ve got a new approach to managing this run. We have technology on the rivers that is changing and what I’ve learned is that they have adjusted their methodology,” he said. “I feel the board is not in a position at this point to have to add that extra bit.”

He said he did not want to interfere with what the ADFG managers had already put into place, a sentiment Every had expressed immediately after the Feb. 3 vote.

“The thing that bothers me is that it’s a $200 million department that we asked to manage our fisheries,” he said. “$200 million. They’ve got the science. They’ve got the know-how. They’ve got the expertise and I don’t know what’s happened to our state system, or this process, but we’ve allowed this group of seven people — that are good people — we give them the power to change the numbers within the escapement goals. ... It’s just frustrating to me.”

But while Every was even slightly mollified by the board’s reconsideration, several others in the room were not, including Kenai River Professional Guide Association president Steve McClure.

The sportfishing guides have as much, if not more, to lose than setnet users when the escapement goal is raised he said, because the recent low returns of kings would likely close the river to sportfishing as quickly as it would pull nets out of water.

“When we came here last year for the state meeting and the 15,000 number came out, our association thought, ‘Man, that’s just too low,’” he said. “Lower than we’ve ever been. We’ve never had an escapement number like that. We were disappointed then and then we came out with the forecast and there’s not a lot of surplus fish. We know that. By raising the goal to 16,600 ... we knew that we would probably be more likely to get restricted, but we were happy about it.”

McClure said he’d like to see a higher escapement goal.

When the board motion to reconsider was voted upon, two members, Johnstone and Morisky, remained in support of the higher goal.

The original proposal to create a new goal on the Kenai River was submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and called for the board to create an escapement goal of 20,000 to 40,000 kings.

However, Kevin Delaney, a fisheries biology consultant for the sportfishing association said during his committee testimony that the group did not want to argue for a goal that would keep everyone from fishing.

The late run of Kenai River king salmon is forecasted to come in at 19,715 fish, just shy of the lower end of the KRSA proposal range. If it is realized and just 19,715 fish return, the in-river sport fishers, guides and commercial setnet fishers would likely be kept out of water as ADFG managers tried to reach the proposed escapement goal range. Under the new plan adopted Feb. 5, all users will likely face restrictions from the start of the season.

During his morning comments in opposition to changing the board’s vote on the goal, Johnstone said it had been his experience that when an organization voices lukewarm support for its own proposal, it fails.

In the weeks leading up to the Board of Fisheries meeting, the sportfishing association mounted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in at least 250 people voicing support for the organization’s proposals. The vast majority of the comments supported raising the Kenai River king salmon escapement goal.

“The author, I was under the assumption, was concerned about conservation,” Johnstone said. “... Then, all of the sudden, the forecast came out so there weren’t as many as we hoped there could be ... at that time, it wasn’t quite as convenient to have this proposal on the table so the support wavered.”

Johnstone said he believed he had been tasked with “protecting the fish.”

“I believe now that we’re looking at it, we’re now concerned more about (fishing) opportunity, than we are about the fish,” he said. “Those people that wrote the letters are going to be disappointed; I’m disappointed.”

Despite the reversal, setnetter Gary Hollier said damage had still been done to the Board of Fisheries process.

“A lot of people came to this board with some solutions, trying to put our community back together because it really has been divided over this sport-commercial conflict,” he said. “What the board did yesterday, it kind of tipped a lot of commercial fishermen over the top when they changed to an (escapement goal) that wasn’t based on available science ... thank goodness some smarter people prevailed and they reconsidered and now it’s gone. But it did some damage to people that are trying to come here and find some common ground.”

Reach Rashah McChesney at