COMMENTARY: The actual, factual new realities of Cook Inlet salmon

  • Karl Kircher and Steven Bishop pitch setnet caught fish from a skiff near the mouth of the Kasilof River at 1 a.m. on July 16, 2014, during an overnight commercial fishing period. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion)

In his opinion piece published in the Alaska Journal of Commerce on Feb. 8, Mr. Karl Johnstone, presumably from his home in Arizona, gave a eulogy at the graveside of Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing. Actually, the industry is alive and well and helping Alaskans get through these economic hard times.

Mr. Johnstone uses the same old tired, outdated arguments: there is not enough salmon in Cook Inlet for all users; Cook Inlet salmon can’t compete with farmed salmon, sportfisheries are so much more valuable than commercial fisheries; etc.

He cites an economic report about angler spending that was conducted prior to the national recession in 2008 and the recent king salmon decline and compares the numbers to the very lowest possible measure of commercial harvest value in Cook Inlet on a bad year.

Johnstone claims that Alaska salmon can’t compete with farmed salmon. Twenty years ago that was a problem but the industry adapted and now wild Alaska salmon have a solid market niche and Cook Inlet sockeye is a very premium, sought-after product in America.

The worst economic lie that he and his pals have been promoting is that the sport industry and personal use fisheries could actually grow large enough to replace the value of the commercial industry to our state.

It can’t happen.

There is no way that the available, renewable, surplus salmon in Cook Inlet could be harvested without commercial fishing, even if you lined every inch of every beach with personal use dipnets.

In-river sport fishing capacity is already maxed-out. For each of the past six years the Kenai River has had overescapements. All of the dipnetters and anglers in the river could not harvest the (average annual) half-million excess sockeye that swam through.

When properly managed, Cook Inlet is the fourth-largest commercial salmon fishery in the state. With good management, there are enough salmon in Cook Inlet for everyone. And we need the economic benefit for all the users, especially now.

Big, beautiful Cook Inlet commercial sockeye salmon are a keystone component of the Southcentral Alaska seafood industry. The latest economic study of this industry (McDowell Group, 2015), based on 2013 data, found that 8,130 full-time equivalent jobs were provided and $1.2 billion was generated in total economic output annually.

Mr. Johnstone has finally “outed” himself here as an opponent of commercial fishing. His strong prejudice against commercial fishing was always very evident during his years as a member, and then as the chairman, of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

During Mr. Johnstone’s time on the Board, the viability of the commercial salmon fishing industry in Cook Inlet was systematically undermined while the interests of the guided sportfishing industry were actively promoted.

Mr. Johnstone’s work on the Board of Fisheries resulted in a myriad of arbitrary, unscientific restrictions on commercial fishing that have made it impossible for ADF&G to manage the fishery properly.

Overescapements into the Kenai River are one direct consequence of this. Those excess fish that were not needed for spawning, and were not caught in-river by PU or sport fishers, were worth over $70 million to the commercial industry.

If Mr. Johnstone gets what he wants — the end of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet — he’ll wreck the salmon resource and the local and regional economy. There’s a reason he is no longer on the Board of Fisheries.

Catherine Cassidy of Kasilof has worked in the Cook Inlet commercial fish industry for 29 years and is a drift gillnet permit holder.

02/10/2017 - 11:56am