Cook Inlet setnet, sport king fisheries closed; Bristol Bay breaks record
While Bristol Bay has broken its all time record for sockeye, Cook Inlet’s setnetters are already out of the water for the season because of low king salmon numbers.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order July 19 that closes the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery entirely, as well as the Kasilof River and Upper Cook Inlet saltwaters. The run has been disappointing so far, and looks likely to come in at around 10,000 large fish; that is far short of the lower end of the current optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish.
“The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly below preseason expectations, without further restrictions the escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved,” said sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka in the announcement from ADFG.
The managers started the late run on July 1 with a fishery open to retention, but no bait allowed. Through the paired restrictions on setnetters, that meant they had only up to 48 hours per week to fish and limited gear: only two 29-mesh nets or one 45-mesh net per permit, compared to the three 45-mesh nets per permit they’re allowed to have without the paired restrictions. Then, last week, ADFG went to catch and release, which pulled setnetters back to no more than 24 hours per week.
The move to close the river to king fishing closes the East Side setnets entirely. The drift gillnet fleet is still able to fish, as are the West Side setnets.
As of July 15, setnets had harvested a total of 138 large late-run Kenai River king salmon, according to ADFG. For all sizes and stocks, east side setnets had harvested 955 king salmon.
The paired restrictions have been a point of pain for East Side setnetters since 2014, when the Board of Fisheries enacted them with the stated goal of spreading the burden of king salmon conservation between the in-river and commercial fisheries. The Kenai River king salmon run has been struggling for more than a decade, and the paired restrictions have led to early shutdowns or significant restrictions for setnetters multiple times since 2014.
Andy Hall, a Kasilof-area setnetter and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said July 19 that setnetters had been expecting the decision but were disappointed. The paired restrictions fall disproportionately on them, he said, because in-river guides, dipnetters, and sportfishermen can continue to fish for other species, but setnetters are on the beach.
“The paired restrictions are not fair,” Hall said. “They never have been. We’re going to be the only group in the Inlet that’s not fishing now; guides will be guiding, dipnetters will be dipnetting, drifters will be drifting, sportfishermen will be sportfishing, and we’re going to sit on the beach. And we took a fraction of the big kings taken this year.”
Since the 2017 Board of Fisheries meeting, managers have only counted large kings—those 75 centimeters from mid-eye to tail fork or longer—toward the river’s escapement goal. The goal has also been increased numerically several times. In 2016, a department analysis recommended a sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large late-run Kenai kings. The board members chose a higher goal, set as an optimal escapement goal, of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish.
Hall said the setnetters have been watching the goal increase and shift to large kings-only as they lose more fishing time, and that the result has been to allow more sockeye into both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers than the sockeye escapement goals recommend.
“The paired restrictions are not equitable. The concept of managing a sockeye fishery based on its absurdly low exploitation rate on a struggling king stock that has had the highest escapement goal in 25 years placed upon it is profoundly flawed,” he said.
“The only comparable paired restriction would be if all (personal use) and sport fisheries on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers were closed when a single targeted fishery was closed. I am not endorsing that by any means. It would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as the way the ESSN (East Side setnet) is managed.”
KPFA sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang on July 2, predicting that the department would find itself in this position of whether to shut down king salmon fishing, and thus setnets, by late July.
The letter asks Vincent-Lang to consider the impact of shutting down the commercial fishery on the local economy and to evaluate whether it is worth “sacrificing some very small number of large kings to prevent yet another year of dramatic sockeye overescapement and the peninsula-wide financial impacts that foregone sockeye harvest leaves in its wake.”
Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner, said Vincent-Lang did receive the letter and called KPFA to thank them for their input.
“We are sympathetic to the economic impact of every decision we make, especially on a fully allocated resource like Cook Inlet fish,” Vincent-Lang said in a statement. “However, we are following the management plan agreed on by the Board of Fisheries on how to manage these mixed stock runs. Our primary mission is for sustained yield and we have projections that say we have no kings to spare.”
So far, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen have harvested a total of 649,715 salmon, 90 percent of which are sockeye. The pink salmon harvest has been increasing, and so far, they’ve harvested 28,036 of them.
Bristol Bay booms
On the other side of the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay has tipped over the edge of its all-time record. Counts on Tuesday confirmed an estimated of 63.2 million sockeye, surpassing the 2018 bay-wide record of 62.95 million.The Nushagak District in particular has blown by forecast expectations, with a total run of 27.2 million sockeye and about 17.5 million sockeye harvested so far.
It also boasted two record harvest days, with 1.7 million and 1.8 million fish each day. West Side area management biologist Tim Sands said the forecast was for about 12 million sockeye to be harvested from there.
The escapement into the Nushagak District rivers is about 9.7 million total. Sands said there were hampering factors that prevented some extra harvest.
“Certainly (escapement is) higher than we would need or like, but with all the tough weather we’ve had this year and the breaks early on for king conservation, we had a lot more fish going by,” he said.
However, the banner harvest numbers may be slightly tempered by decreased fish size. ADFG samples have been showing that the average sockeye weight is down about three-quarters of a pound from historical averages, or about 4.5 pounds average this year.
Stacy Vega, an ADFG biologist who runs the sampling program in Bristol Bay, said that may be in part because the average age of fish returning to the bay is declining. The fish may also be smaller because of the very large runs returning this year, increasing competition for resources.
“When you have a lot more fish, they tend to be smaller, because there’s just less resources out there for them,” she said.
The smaller weights may impact the ending-season value of the catch, despite record numbers. Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said those smaller sizes result in smaller fillets, which in turn affect the market value.
“When you try to translate to value, that bump of harvest gets watered down quite a lot,” he said. “I think reporting on the numbers of fish in Bristol Bay should be tempered by the size issues.”
The decrease in size may not affect the fishermen too drastically, as they are paid by the pound at the dock. This year, base prices are also higher than they have been in recent years.
Last week, OBI Seafoods announced a base price of $1.25 per pound, and Peter Pan matched it, up from its own preseason base price of $1.10 per pound.
Lesh noted that the prices still down from their high points several years ago, but that the increase is good to see for fishermen.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].