Cook Inlet fishermen face poor forecast, federal uncertainty

  • Crew from the Barnes’ setnet site near Nikiski guide a skiff loaded with salmon into the beach to be sorted on July 11, 2016. Fishermen in Cook Inlet are facing another poor harvest forecast for sockeye and the drift fleet is battling a plan to close the federal waters of the Inlet to all salmon fishing. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/For the Journal)

Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are facing pressure from two directions in the upcoming season: one is the looming potential for a complete federal waters closure, and the other is another poor projection of sockeye returns.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sockeye forecast issued April 8 predicts a total return of 4.4 million sockeye to the upper Inlet, which includes major salmon-producing waterways like the Kenai, Susitna, and Kasilof rivers A return that size would allow for a commercial catch of about 1.6 million sockeye, a little more than half of the average in the last 20 years.

The Kasilof River’s run is projected to be about 881,000 sockeye, about 12 percent less than average, while the Susitna River is forecast at 436,000, or 16 percent better than average. Fish Creek is also projected slightly above the average, with 92,000 expected to return.

The Kenai is the largest producer of sockeye in the Inlet, with about 2.3 million projected to return there this year. However, that’s about 1.3 million fish less than the average in the last 20 years, and means a significant decrease in the number of sockeye available for commercial harvest. Added to the allocation to the large sportfishery and personal use fishery on the Kenai, and the commercial harvest in Cook Inlet would be much smaller than in past years.

That’s even if they get a chance to harvest it. Last year, setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side spent fewer hours in the water than usual in July, the height of the season, because of extremely poor king salmon runs to the Kenai River.

Part of the management plan says that if the king salmon runs aren’t projected to meet escapement goals, an increasingly stringent set of management measures go into place, removing bait and retention from the sportfishery, reducing the number of hours allowed in the setnet fishery, and restricting the area in which the drift gillnet fleet is allowed to fish.

The late run of kings to the Kenai is forecast at 18,046 fish. That’s just more than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 for the late run. It’s very low — the fifth-lowest in the last 36 years, according to Fish and Game — but it would still be better than 2020’s poor return of about 12,216 kings.

“Based on the forecasted run size and if harvest rates are average in both sport and commercial fisheries, the Kenai River late-run king salmon large fish (optimum escapement goal) may not be met without a reduction in sport and commercial harvest of this stock,” the department states in the outlook.

The Northern District, which starts north of Nikiski and covers up to the area around the Susitna River, is facing a similar restriction. The king salmon run to the Deshka is projected to be around 11.464 fish, which is just above the lower end of the escapement goal. ADFG notes that harvest will probably need to be reined in to make sure that run makes its goal. Sportfishermen can’t keep king salmon in the Susitna or Little Susitna rivers, and setnetters will only get 6-hour fishing periods targeting kings in May up through June 21.

“If the run is stronger than expected and retention of king salmon is allowed in the Deshka River sport fishery, reestablishing 9 or 12 hour openings in the directed king salmon commercial fishery may occur,” the department states in its outlook.

The Northern District is scheduled to open May 31; the drift gillnet fishery on June 21, and the East Side setnet fisheries at varying times after June 28, with the exception of the Kasilof section, which can open as soon as June 20.

The fishermen are facing the potential that this could be their last Cook Inlet salmon season in federal waters, too. In November, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved an amendment to the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan that would close all the federal waters in the inlet to salmon fishing.

The decision came after a prolonged lawsuit and stakeholder process that resulted in the state refusing to accept delegated management under federal oversight, and the council voting to close the fishery with the potential open for further discussion from the federal government.

If the amendment to the FMP goes forward, all the waters more than three nautical miles offshore in Cook Inlet would be closed to salmon fishing, primarily affecting the drift gillnet fleet. In some years, more than half of the drift fleet’s salmon harvest comes from the federal waters.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, whose lawsuit over the council’s decision in 2012 to remove Cook Inlet from the federal salmon FMP in the first place, have argued that this decision is illegal as well. In a March 2021 statement, the organization stated that none of the four options considered by the council were acceptable.

“The real problem for the State and ADFG was the fact that a proper process and delegation of authority under the Council’s scrutiny, or (National Marine Fisheries Service’s) scrutiny, would expose the reality that none of the Cook Inlet management plans, escapement goals and in-season management practices comply with the (Magnuson-Stevens Act) or national standard requirements,” the group said in its statement. “None of these plans, goals or practices will meet the requirements of federal law, because they are so flawed, unsustainable and scientifically invalid.”

The decision is under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service prior to publication in the Federal Register, when it will be available for public comment.

The Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery has been worth an average ex-vessel value of $27 million in the last decade, with the vast majority of that coming from sockeye. However, last year’s was the worst ex-vessel value on record at only about $5.2 million, less than a fifth of the average.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/21/2021 - 9:01am