Local fishing organizations gear up for Cook Inlet meeting
KENAI — With more than 230 regulatory proposals, some several pages worth of suggested changes to the Cook Inlet finfish fisheries, nearly 500 written comments and several hundred pages of Alaska Department of Fish and Game opinions and reports, the seven members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries will have their work cut out for them in the coming two weeks.
The board is scheduled to take up Cook Inlet issues from Jan. 31 to Feb. 13 at the Egan Center in Anchorage and several local organizations are gearing up for the triennial meeting that brings many of the area’s ongoing management issues to the forefront of statewide discussions on how to manage fish resources.
The first few days of the meeting are scheduled to be taken up primarily by public comment and advisory committee testimony. Representatives from Fish and Game advisory committees, whose bodies spent the weeks leading up to the meeting finalizing comments on each proposal, will present their support and opposition to certain proposals, while individuals can also voice their concerns to the board.
During the Board of Fisheries meeting on Lower Cook Inlet issues held in December, board members said they expected the public comment portion of the Upper Cook Inlet meeting to be substantive.
After public testimony, the board will address four proposals on the Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plan including one of 12 submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a politically influential Soldotna-based sportfishing and conservation advocacy group.
The proposal would require area ADFG managers to prioritize meeting the lower end of an escapement goal on a fish stock over exceeding the upper end of an escapement goal on another fish stock in the same fishery.
It attempts to address a problem ADFG management biologists have said causes friction in a mixed-stock fishery like the Cook Inlet. The problem is exacerbated during years that one stock, such as king salmon, is returning in low numbers, while sockeyes are returning in high numbers.
Commercial and personal use fishers primarily focus their fishing efforts on sockeye salmon, while sportfishing users focus on king and coho, or silver, salmon; all three user groups harvest several of the five species of Pacific salmon.
According to ADFG comments on the proposal, the department is neutral on whether or not the proposal is passed, though it does not advocate for additional regulatory text requiring it to prioritize certain escapement goals over others.
“Although it is not stated in regulation, the department has been consistent and clear that achieving the lower end of the escapement goal has the priority over exceeding the upper end of escapement goals,” according to ADFG comments.
The board, as a whole, will then discuss 12 proposals on the late run of Kenai River king salmon including one submitted by local commercial fisherman Mark Ducker which would modify the management plan for the late run of Kenai River king salmon to establish an escapement goal of 12,000 to 28,000 king salmon (lower than the current escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000), increase emergency order hours available to fish for commercial fishers and delete habitat provisions in the plan.
According to Ducker’s explanation, the current king salmon problem is related to an overescapement, or too many fish, into the river from 2003 to 2006 and a lowered goal and liberalization of the commercial and sport fisheries would eliminate the problem.
The board will then address 10 proposals on the early-run of Kenai River king salmon, a run that Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, said was his organization’s primary concern during the meeting.
The coalition, which advocates for private, unguided anglers, submitted a proposal that would close certain areas of the Kenai River during king salmon season to prevent anglers from targeting vulnerable spawning king salmon.
According to ADFG sonar data, the early run of Kenai River king salmon did not meet its minimum escapement goal in 2013, meaning too few fish entered the river.
While the ADFG managers restricted the river to primarily catch-and-release fishing only and closed it to king salmon fishing on June 20, the final escapement is still estimated at 2,038 fish, far less than the minimum of 5,300 kings for the escapement goal.
The coalition is also advocating for an expansion of the slot limit on the size of king salmon that can be kept bringing it down to 42 inches rather than the current 46-inch cutoff.
The move is designed to protect female fish, which have smaller heads and therefore fall under the current slot limit.
“We harvest more females in our fishery than males for that reason,” Kramer said. “Those females are real vulnerable because they’re right below the 46-inch cutoff.”
The group is also supporting a proposal that would limit the Kenai River to drift boat use only for an additional day during the week.
Kramer said the low numbers of king salmon returning to the Kenai River needed to be addressed quickly.
“We think that (fishing) opportunity is going to have to take a backseat to resource protection during these times of low abundance,” he said. “You have to look out for the resource first and opportunity second, so we’re pushing for more conservation measures.”
The board will then discuss 21 proposals on the Kenai king salmon sport fishery including some that would increase the “sanctuary” space at the mouths of tributaries on the river where king salmon are known to spawn, several that would modify the type of bait or hooks allowed in the fishery and one that would require stocking the Kenai River with 50,000 king salmon smolt.
Several other proposals would amend management plans for coho and sockeye salmon, areas where commercial drift fishers can fish, open commercial fishing “windows” for longer periods of time, or modify the way commercial fishing permits are regulated.
More than half of the public comments were submitted in support of certain proposals submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, generated through a form on the organization’s website.
Ricky Gease, executive director of the sportfishing association, said his organization designed the web form after he got feedback from Board of Fisheries members that they wanted to hear from a diversity of anglers who participated in the fisheries and their perspectives on proposals that would affect those fisheries.
“The majority of those comments are from long-term Alaskans who aren’t guides and are people who like to come down here and go fishing,” he said. “We tried to provide a venue or a method which was easier for members of the public to comment on somewhat complex fisheries issues, people that normally don’t get heard in the process.”
While the 250 people who used the form to comment were only making decisions to support Kenai River Sportfishing Association proposals, Gease said he thought the perspectives still carried weight in the Board of Fisheries process.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be effective or not, all I know is more than half the comments that are on the Board of Fisheries came through that one website of people that we reached out to basically through email and social media and said, is this an important issue to you,” Gease said. “250 people thought it was important enough to go online to at least read through the facts and just say ‘here’s my story’ and ‘consider it when you make decisions.’”