Management challenge: Inlet 'fish wars' escalate as king productivity ebbs

Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in the Morris Communications series, “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon.”

It’s a lesson every elected official in Alaska learns firsthand sooner or later, and Gov. Sean Parnell got a fresh reminder this past April in the waning days of the legislative session when his nomination of Vince Webster to a second term on the Board of Fisheries was rejected by a 30-29 vote.

“Fish politics is pretty brutal,” Parnell said of the campaign against Webster, who was the only one of his 88 nominations to not receive confirmation.

Webster, a commercial Bristol Bay setnetter from King Salmon, was the target of an intense lobbying effort by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that swayed several members of Parnell’s party into voting against him with a few declaring their decisions to be a protest against fisheries management in Cook Inlet that they assert favors commercial over recreational interests.

Alongside his Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell at his Anchorage office Dec. 4, Parnell said in an interview with the Journal that he has ramped up outreach after Webster was defeated. At the time, Parnell called the vote “disappointing, discouraging and disheartening,” but he has also moved on.

“I’ve worked diligently with each of those legislators before then and since then,” Parnell said. “What you will hear from legislators is there has been a greater effort on my part, and on the department’s part, to communicate with the public how fisheries management works in the state and to listen to the concerns being brought forward.

“No governor likes to see an appointment go down, but you also have to learn from that and get someone qualified for this very important job. These are jobs that should transcend politics.”

Ideally that would be the case, but there’s little chance of that, though, as the Board of Fisheries readies for its triennial Upper Cook Inlet meeting beginning Jan. 31 following a year of tumult in the region.

Lobbying and litigation

After a series of meetings this past winter among a Cook Inlet Task Force created to find management alternatives in the wake of near complete closures of sport and commercial fishing in 2012 to conserve Kenai River king salmon, no consensus was reached.

That Task Force failure culminated in the KRSA campaign against Webster, which turned out to be only a skirmish in the ongoing battle between sport and commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet that has long been dubbed the “fish wars.”

Just a few months prior to the Webster vote, the United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella organization for some 36 commercial fishing groups in the state, filed a complaint with the state Attorney General alleging that Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, had unlawfully listened in on and disseminated information from a UFA board of directors teleconference regarding Parnell’s upcoming nominations to the Board of Fisheries.

Through its teleconference vendor, the UFA traced a participating line on the call to the KRSA office in Soldotna after board Chairman Karl Johnstone informed UFA Executive Director Julianne Curry by email the following day that he was aware of what had been said during the call and chided the group for what he heard was said about applicants and current members of the board.

The state dropped the UFA complaint after a brief investigation, but that wasn’t the only legal action of the year surrounding Cook Inlet salmon.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association continued its lawsuit against the federal government after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council officially turned over salmon management in all Alaska waters (other than Southeast) to the state in December 2012.

UCIDA has stated the federal council should retain oversight of state salmon management, which it argues is not meeting Magnuson-Stevens Act national standards.

Later on this past summer, a group representing setnetters sued the Department of Fish and Game seeking additional fishing time, a demand that turned out to be moot as Kenai River king salmon again showed up in low numbers and late in the season, leading to the July 28 closure of both the sport and commercial setnet harvest of king salmon.

Like 2012, a sizable portion of the Kenai River late run of king salmon showed up after Aug. 1, and the minimum escapement goal was met with 15,395 according to the official ADFG estimate. In early August, still 29 king salmon short of the minimum of 15,000, the department kept the East Side setnetters closed for their last possible day of fishing.

Shutting down setnetters

Still, all the legal wrangling and lobbying against a backdrop of low king salmon abundance around the state was but a prelude to the bomb that dropped in November with the filing of an initiative that would ban setnetters from the east Cook Inlet beaches where they have operated for a century.

The proposed ballot initiative, crafted as a statewide measure to ban setnets in non-subsistence, “urban” areas, was filed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance backed by KRSA founder Bob Penney, who signaled his intent to take the Cook Inlet fish wars to another level by emailing every legislator to urge them to support the ban on setnets or pass a law to achieve the same effect.

While Penney may find some traction with legislators who were convinced to vote against Vince Webster, a Dec. 4 resolution passed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly unanimously opposed the initiative to ban setnetters.

Parnell, earlier that day in his office, cited state law in refusing to weigh in on the initiative specifically. The deadline for a decision by the Division of Elections on whether the initiative is certified as legal is the first week of January.

“As you know, we cannot use state resources to support or oppose initiatives,” he said. “State officials have roles to play in these initiatives, but the initiative certainly speaks to a level of frustration, and that’s what the initiative process is meant to address — the ability for the public to have this discussion publicly and for the public to decide.”

Asked whether the setnetters serve a management purpose for ADFG to prevent overescapement of sockeye, Campbell said they do.

“It’s important to understand there’s a tremendous amount of variability about how sockeye move through the Inlet,” she said. “Some people look at the 2012 season where we barely fished the setnetters at all and were able to harvest a lot of sockeyes with the drifters. They would look at that and say, ‘Well, that’s proof that the setnetters aren’t necessary.’ I’ve heard that comment from people. The fact of the matter is that that was an anomaly. The winds, the tides, there’s a tremendous number of factors that affect the way fish swim through the Inlet. We certainly can’t expect the fish to be cooperative, to hold offshore, and to wait to be harvested by the drift fleet.

“In many years, those fish slam up against the beach, they move up against the beach, and in those years, that’s when the setnets are a very important harvest tool. Otherwise you’ll see those fish get up the river.”

Campbell added that king salmon catch by setnetters is one of the “best, most reliable indicators” of run strength the department has.

“We like to have a lot of indicators on the table when we’re looking at king salmon abundance and it certainly is one of those indicators,” she said. “In 2012, when we had the setnetters out of the water, we felt the loss of that indicator having one less data set to look at.”

Speaking generally about his fisheries management policy as he expects it to be implemented by ADFG, Parnell said, “science will drive the decisions.”

“The governor is not going to go making allocation decisions even though that’s what people want me to do in the summer when one user group is upset,” he said. “I’m working to make sure the process is working for the public, and for the sustainability of stocks. Where those break down, I’m going to fix them and make them work for the public.”

“Constitutionally, there has to be concurrent use of the resource. Whether it’s among gear groups or industries, it’s a shared resource, and in this case we have a legal structure with the Board of Fish setting allocations and management plans, research and staff to manage according to those plans and authorities. My job is to make that system work for the public.

“I’d be the last person to say a politician should stand up and start making allocation decisions. That’s not correct under our law, and is not good for sustainability of the stocks or Alaska as a whole.”

Allocating dollars

Parnell has allocated some dollars, $30 million of them, to king salmon research over the next five years to examine the causes of the statewide drop in returns. He said he spent “a lot of political capital” in the 2013 legislative session to secure the funding, which began flowing this past July 1 at the start of the 2014 fiscal year.

“It’s a statewide issue,” he said. “It’s not localized even though people in specific areas feel the pressure of lack of returns clearly. Recognizing the hardship on Alaskans and that we all want sustainability of the resource, the state, our administration, have devoted a lot of resources to it.”

Campbell said work began before July 1 this year in the field using existing ADFG funds, and research plans for the entire state will be released on the department website in January. Twelve “indicator stocks” from rivers across the state will be covered, with staff identifying gaps in baseline knowledge.

“You’ll be able to see a project summary that lists what we’re doing, where we’re doing it and what the benefit is going to be to Alaskans of how those dollars are being spent,” Campbell said. “A number of the traditional knowledge projects have already started because we don’t need to wait for a field season. We can start on those now.”

Work will include research into smolts, juveniles and adult populations along with genetic sampling, tagging and studies of outmigration.

“We had almost no smolt work being done outside of Southeast, so really no estimate at all of outmigration,” Campbell said. “Really for a stock that is this important to Alaskans, that is this iconic for our state, it really was surprising when you dug down in to find out what the gaps were.”

Campbell called the research funding a “tremendous opportunity” for the department to increase its knowledge of king salmon, and to examine the differences in productivity. For example, the decline on the Yukon River has lasted since the late 1990s while low returns on the Kenai or Kuskokwim rivers are a more recent phenomenon. At the same time, the Nushagak River king salmon returns in Bristol Bay appear to be healthy.

“You want to find out what are the factors causing that variability,” Campbell said.

Sonar saga

One area ADFG has devoted a great deal of research over the past several years is into its sonar counting of salmon on the Kenai River, and like the rest of Cook Inlet issues, is not without controversy.

After years using a “split-beam” sonar that biologists did not feel confident about accurately distinguishing king salmon from sockeye salmon, the department has transitioned in the 2012 and 2013 seasons to using the high-tech DIDSON counter.

DIDSON stands for duel-frequency identification sonar, which creates an ultrasound-like image that makes it possible to tell a larger king from a smaller sockeye.

After three years of side-by-side testing with the split-beam sonar from 2009 to 2011, in conjunction with its other run strength measures, the department recommended changing the Kenai River late-run king salmon escapement goal from a range of 17,800 to 35,500 to a range of 15,000 to 30,000.

An escapement goal is the number of fish needed to reach the spawning grounds to ensure sustainable returns in the future. ADFG presented this new goal as a conversion from the previous goal, and used an expansion factor to account for fish that did not swim in front of the DIDSON counters.

The Board of Fisheries, as required by law, adopted the ADFG escapement goal unanimously at its statewide meeting this past March. The new range was portrayed as a lowering of the escapement goal by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which included that contention in its lobbying campaign to knock Webster off the board in April.

Commercial fishermen, particularly the setnetters, were also frustrated with the DIDSON results in 2012 because they argued the department wasn’t counting all the kings that were making it up the river and erred in completely closing fishing to everyone but the drift fleet being used to harvest sockeyes.

That argument was exacerbated in the postseason analysis when ADFG estimated the cumulative number of king salmon past the DIDSON counter was nearly 26,000 in 2012, which could have allowed for at least some commercial and sport fishing opportunity rather than the complete shutdown that resulted in Parnell seeking and receiving a federal disaster declaration.

With commercial fishermen arguing ADFG is being too conservative, and sport groups such as KRSA arguing the department isn’t being conservative enough, coming to some kind of agreement on the accuracy of the Kenai River sonar counts is of paramount importance.

To that end, the department has also been using an experimental sonar counter five miles up-river from the DIDSON that covers the Kenai from bank-to-bank and is not subject to as much tidal and debris interference.

Numbers have not yet been released comparing the results at the experimental up-river counter compared to the lower river counter used for in-season management, but Campbell said the results will back up the factor being used to account for “missed” fish that has generated so much criticism.

“What we’ve been looking at is the number of large fish counted at the lower river sonar and at the large fish counted at the upper river sonar,” she said. “Keep in mind you’d expect to see more (up-river). We know the lower river sonar is not ensonifying the entire river.

“When we are ensonifying the entire river, we’d expect it to be higher and that is what we’re seeing. It’s higher by the amount we’d expect it to be higher by. The data correlates to the lower river sonar with this adjustment factor we were using.”

Managing mixed stocks

Despite restrictions to their fishing time for conservation of Kenai kings, Cook Inlet setnetters were able to harvest about 900,000 sockeye salmon in 2013 and sport fishing for kings on the Kenai was allowed to some degree up until the July 28 closure ordered by ADFG when it appeared the minimum end of the goal was not going to be met.

Although not to as great a degree in 2012, the kings kept coming after Aug. 1 and the goal of 15,000 was achieved. While there was much angst among all commercial and sport users this past summer, ADFG managers threaded the needle to avoid the economic disaster that occurred in 2012.

“I think the managers did a great job in a terrible situation,” Campbell said. “It’s hard to rate a season a success when you know there are a lot of people depending on that resource that felt a tremendous amount of pain. But simply from the point of view of the job the managers had to do, which is balance the need to harvest sockeye with conserving king salmon, if you look at the numbers for how that turned out they did a tremendous job of conserving king salmon, meeting that goal and providing opportunity to harvest other species.”

King salmon are not forecast to rebound suddenly in 2014, but an above average return of some 6.1 million sockeye is the ADFG estimate for the upcoming season in Cook Inlet. That means managers will likely once again be walking the tightrope between taking the appropriate sockeye harvest while avoiding king salmon.

Those are the known factors, which are challenging enough, combined with the great variable of what changes the Board of Fisheries will make to Cook Inlet management at what figures to be a contentious meeting with one user group angling to eliminate another at the ballot box.

“We’re preparing for the meeting the same way we always do,” Campbell said. “We’re compiling every piece of data that we can put together that will be relevant to the board’s deliberations and to the public as they prepare to go before the board and make their case, whatever that case may be. Our job is to put the best information out there.

“We have a sense of what may be coming for sockeye, we have a sense of what may be coming for kings, but we need to get a sense for what will come out of this Board of Fish meeting.”

Next week: Examining the escapement goals for the Kenai River.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]. Comments on this series can also be sent to [email protected].

12/12/2013 - 6:35am