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composed of multiple user groups from the Kenai Peninsula between Kasilof and Anchor Point, would like to see the rule repealed.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.
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].