Board of Fish adds Chignik, Inlet sockeye issues to March agenda

Upper Cook Inlet setnetters may get some changes from the Alaska Board of Fisheries sooner rather than later.

At its Oct. 20-21 worksession, the Board of Fisheries turned down seven agenda change requests from Upper Cook Inlet fishermen, five of them related to the restrictions on the set gillnet fishery and two more on general fishing provisions.  However, the board members accepted their own proposal that could allow for limited fishing in the setnet fishery as long as the late run of Kenai River kings meets the lower end of its goal and both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have also met their sockeye goals.

This year presented exceptionally hard circumstances for the Kenai Peninsula setnetters of the upper sub-district, which stretches about 60 miles from Nikiski to Kasilof. Though sockeye salmon, the fishery’s primary target, were running thick, Upper were forced to pull gear out of the water by mid-July—usually the peak of the sockeye run—because of low king salmon returns. Because the two salmon runs are paired together in regulation, setnetters lost weeks of harvest, and some said that translated to tens of thousands of dollars for their operations.

“The lost opportunity to harvest sockeye each year is an economic disaster, and cannot be overstated, for our families, coastal communities, support infrastructure, and processors,” longtime Upper Cook Inlet setnetters Brian and Lisa Gabriel wrote in testimony to the board. “At a time when the governor has stated that we need to squeeze every dollar that we can out of the economy, it seems contrary when $60 to $80 million of economic stimulus was left on the table because of forgone harvest.”

The Gabriels were among dozens of setnetters who submitted similarly supportive comments of an agenda change request, or ACR,  which would have allowed for openings of the 600-foot fishery to harvest sockeye under certain circumstances even when Kenai River king runs are limited. Recent data from the fishery indicates that few kings are caught in the short nets, which are set out to 600 feet of mean high tide.

Travis Every, who submitted the request, submitted a nearly identical request in July, which prompted an emergency meeting from the board in August. The board declined to accept the request then, which would have potentially reopened some setnetting at the tail end of the Kenai River sockeye salmon run. 

“At (the emergency) meeting several board members stated that the emergency petition platform was not the correct venue to solve this matter,” Every wrote. “They encouraged setnetters to present our limited 600ft fishery through the ACR process.”

Board member McKenzie Mitchell submitted the board’s 600-foot fishery proposal, which would allow limited fishing when escapement in the late run of Kenai kings reaches 13,500 fish and escapements have been met in the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye fisheries.

Mitchell said she agreed that the public ACRs didn’t meet the standards for an emergency, but wanted to see something to be done to help the commercial fishermen.

The board has three criteria for accepting ACRs: a conservation purpose, to correct an error in regulation, or to correct an effect on a fishery that was unforeseen. Every wrote that the board’s decision to implement increased king salmon escapement goals at the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting and to require a complete setnet fishery closure could not have foreseen two pieces of information. One is the data showing that the 600-foot fishery, when implemented across the entire east side setnet fishery, would catch so few king salmon proportionally. 

The other is that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close the federal waters to salmon fishing in Cook Inlet, effective at the end of this year. Estimates range for how that will impact the drift fishery, but past records from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have estimated that about half of the drift fleet’s salmon harvest in Cook Inlet comes from the federal waters. Drifters have protested the move, and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association is currently working in the courts against the council’s decision.

Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, who supported the fishermen’s argument that the present situation was unforeseen at the August meeting, said now that he agreed with the petitioners’ logic and that without action, the fishery will likely become cost-prohibitive to participate in.

Board member Indy Walton, who is new to the board and lives on the Kenai Peninsula, said he agreed that the actions taken at the 2020 meeting led to these consequences.

“If you’re changing the escapement goals and not seeing the potential domino effect… Now here we are today, looking at those dominoes that have fallen, knowing what has caused those,” he said. “From a conservation standpoint … I want to see these king stocks grow, but at the same time too, we run the risk of over-escapement.”

Board member John Wood also said he would support accepting the ACR, especially in light of the federal waters closure. Without additional action, he said the risk of letting too many sockeye into the river is a real one. However, board members Israel Payton, John Jensen, and Marit Carlson-Van Dort all said the request didn’t meet the criteria for an unforeseen emergency. Payton said the board knew that the actions it took in 2020 would result in less sockeye opportunity in order to preserve kings, so that didn’t make it unforeseen.

The board also accepted an ACR aimed at conserving Chignik sockeye salmon stocks. Chignik has seen four years of failed sockeye fisheries and the proposal seeks to limit Alaska Peninsula harvest of Chignik-bound stocks through season adjustments. The ACR specifically focuses on the early run.

By approving the change requests the board members have not made any regulatory changes yet; rather, they agreed to investigate the issues at a March meeting.

The board members went back and forth on whether the Chignik request qualified under the ACR guidelines as well, but ultimately came down to concern over the conservation of the stock. Board member John Jensen said he is concerned about the stock, but that Chignik’s regular meeting is coming up in 2023 and could be discussed then with the extra data. Other board members disagreed, saying that Chignik had already had to wait an extra year because of delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was one entity that said, ‘Do not postpone this because our situation is so dire,’” Wood said. “That entity was Chignik.”

Fish and Game representatives said the department did not see the ACR as meeting the criteria, because early-run sockeye are returning to Chignik at a sustainable rate, but that the yield available for harvest is lessened.

Public comments in favor of the Chignik ACR were divided—there were nearly double as many comments opposed as in support, with nearly all the comments in support from the community and those opposed from the commercial fisheries outside it. 

 

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Updated: 
10/29/2021 - 8:32pm