Board adopts further restrictions to Cook Inlet setnet fishery

Photo/Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

Emotions ran high Feb. 5 as the Alaska Board of Fisheries deliberated a board-member generated proposal that outlined a new plan to pair restrictions between commercial setnet fishermen and in-river fishers who harvest the struggling Kenai River king salmon stock.

As it became clear during deliberations that the board would be making substantive changes to the way the commercial setnet fisheries occur in July and August, more members of the group stood and moved away from the board to the back of the hall leaving the vast majority of the audience seats empty.  

The restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery, if fully actuated, could result in a 50 percent reduction in effort causing an unknown reduction in sockeye harvest — the salmon species primarily targeted by the group.

The language amends the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan to include “step-down measures” that board members said were meant to be paired with step-down measures in the in-river fishery when king salmon stocks are returning in low numbers.

According to the new plan, from July 1 to July 31, if the in-river return is projected to be fewer than 22,500 fish — the midpoint of the current escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may limit the sportfishery to no bait, or catch-and-release fishing and the East Side setnet fishery will be capped at 36 hours per week.

Under the plan, if the in-river fishery is restricted to catch and release, setnetters will be limited to only one 12-hour period per week rather than the two regular 12-hour periods.

The 2014 preseason forecast for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon is estimated at 6.1 million fish across all rivers and streams, with 1.8 million needed for escapement leaving 4.3 million available for harvest, or about 500,000 more fish than the 20-year average.

Under the old plan and if the 2014 forecast materialized, setnetters would have had up to 74 hours per week available to fish a sockeye run of that size.

The plan also includes setnet gear reduction options that include potential limits on the number or size of the nets in the water.

When the fishery transitions into Aug. 1 — the date the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan ceases to apply — the projected escapement of king salmon into the Kenai River must be more than 22,500 fish or commercial set gillnet fishers will be restricted to 36 hours total for the two-week period.

Tom Kluberton, board member from Talkeetna, said he submitted the proposed changes after years of discussion with fishers who have been struggling to find a balance in harvest of abundant sockeye salmon when king salmon stocks are limited.

The move could allocate several hundred thousand sockeye out of the commercial fishery in order to limit the group’s harvest of king salmon.

“This is allocative. That’s our job,” said Board of Fisheries Chairman Karl Johnstone.

Kluberton said the allocation was an unavoidable consequence of protecting the vulnerable Kenai River king salmon stock.

“We’re being asked to turn a blind eye to kings and we just can’t do that,” he said after the meeting. “Our first priority is conservation.”

During later testimony, Kluberton reminded the audience several times that ADFG could use emergency order authority to liberalize the setnet fishery.

However, Jim Butler, a commercial setnet fisher and representative of the commercial fishing advocacy group the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said he did not believe the loss of fishing opportunity was being shared equally between the commercial and in-river users.

 “We’ve heard a lot of talk about pairing the burdens of dealing with this perceived conservation problem,” Butler said. “Now what we’ve seen is 50 percent of the opportunity that the East Side setnet fishery has, goes away. There has been nothing in the river that been changed except ‘not-bait.’ There’s been not one less motorboat day, not one less drift boat day, there has been no limitation on the number of hours the commercial guide industry fishes.”

Butler said he did not believe ADFG would open the setnet fishery for more hours in August until it reached the in-river return of 22,500 fish.

According to the ADFG preseason outlook for the late run of Kenai River king salmon, the total run is expected to be 19,700 fish.

“They put another 7,000 fish in the recommended goal for the river in August,” Butler said. “They’ve taken away the department’s management flexibility.”

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a sportfishing advocacy group, said his group supported the board’s changes.

“We support what the board did, it’s an important addition to the management plan,” he said.

Both Kluberton and board member Reed Morisky from Fairbanks said during deliberations that they supported the gear restriction options available to setnetters and welcomed new data that would come from some fishers using shorter nets.

There has been ongoing debate in public testimony and private commentary during the meeting on the lack of consistent data on whether king salmon run lower in the water column than sockeye salmon and could avoid being intercepted if setnetters were to use shallower nets.

Kluberton said new rules incentivized the use of shallower nets.

Morisky said the king salmon are too important to risk the health of the stock.

“What we’re talking about here is the state fish of Alaska. It’s not an arctic grayling, it’s not a chum, it’s the king salmon … it’s our state symbol and we’ve taken it down to next to nothing,” he said. “These salmon have a great capability of springing back. If we manage this right, we could have our runs back and we could be trying to figure out what we’re going to do with a great abundance of kings and reds.”

11/15/2016 - 4:00pm