Fisheries need to share burden

May 11, 2009 

Why is it so many seem to have forgotten the deal made 24 years ago when commercial fishermen were allowed to resume the killing of Susitna River king salmon?

One would think that with king runs expected to be weak this year and angling on the Deshka River, one of the major producers in the Susitna drainage, severely restricted even before the season begins, someone would recall the long-ago words of the spokesman for the setnet fishery downstream.

Here is what Stephen Braund from the Northern Cook Inlet Setnetters Association, now the Northern District Set Netters Association of Cook Inlet, told the state Board of Fisheries in 1985:

"We'll be the first to go if there are not enough fish. We're not just trying to get our foot in the door and grow."

There are not enough fish this year. And yet, the commercial fishery is scheduled to go on much as it has since 1986.

When Braund made his appeal to the Fish Board back in '85, it was a different world. The Susitna was awash in kings. Runs once near extinction had been restored after a commercial fishery closure of more than 20 years.

Upwards of 100,000 of the biggest of the salmon were estimated to be returning to the Su each year, and anglers were harvesting only about 10 percent at a time when biologists were calculating it would probably be OK to harvest as many as 30,000 per year.

The Deshka alone was seeing escapements of 30,000 to 40,000 fish, and downstream from there along the Su, Alexander Creek was getting another 5,000 to 10,000 per year.

It was hard to disagree with Braund's logic in arguing that commercial fishermen should be allowed back to scarf up some of the large number of fish in excess of spawning needs.

A lot has changed since then, however. The Alexander Creek run, for one thing, is almost gone. Northern pike invaded that slow-flowing stream a decade ago. The meandering, backwaterish nature of the creek makes for great pike habitat.

Where pike thrive, salmon suffer, and nowhere around the region have they suffered more than on Alexander Creek. The king salmon run there can now, at best, be described as a remnant or a relic. There being some Alexander Creek habitat better suited to salmon than pike, the run can probably sustain itself at a few hundred fish per year, but it is never going to return to its former glory.

Upstream at the Deshka, the situation is better. The waters of the Deshka, in most places, run faster than those of Alexander Creek and over rockier, weed-free ground. This is better salmon habitat than pike habitat, so there are no signs of a full-on pike takeover.

What is going on with the Deshka is much harder to determine than what is going on with Alexander Creek. The Deshka's king runs aren't gone, they're merely yo-yoing. The river saw a record escapement of nearly 58,000 kings in 2004.

Escapement is the fancy word fisheries biologist use to describe the fish that have escaped all human predation -- setnetters, gillnetters, subsistence netters and anglers -- to make it to the spawning grounds, where they only have to worry about getting eaten by bears, wolves, coyotes and eagles.

Last year, the Deshka saw an escapement of 7,553 kings, less than a seventh of what had been seen four years before. And this only after the river was closed to angling June 20 to prevent any further human take of fish bound for the spawning beds.

At the time of that closure, only 2,000 kings had made it through Deshka's fish-counting weir. That was a scary number on a river where the minimum escapement goal is set at 13,000 and the run ends in July. It is obvious now, too, that the closure came too late.

Something should have been done sooner to prevent anglers from catching thousands of kings needed on the spawning beds. Something is being done this year with the king return again expected to be small.

Bait, the most effective way to catch Deshka kings, has been banned. Anglers will need to fish with lures, and if they are lucky enough to hook a king that way, they will most often need to release it unharmed. New restrictions say they can keep fish only on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

What has been the most productive king salmon fishery in the Susitna Valley thus becomes another of those so-called "weekend-only" fisheries common along the state road system.

Meanwhile, downstream, the setnet fishery that was promised to be "the first to go" if there was no surplus of kings remains largely unchanged. Starting at the end of May, the setnetters are expected to get two, 6-hour fishing periods followed by three, 12-hour fishing periods once a week. The scheduled, 48 hours in fishing time equals that of 2008 when the fishery was shut down early because of the angling closure on the Deshka. It is an increase from 36 hours in 2007. The netters are expected to catch about 4,000 kings.

Dave Rutz, Palmer area sport fisheries biologist for Fish and Game, admits he knows of no salmon spawning stream in the Susitna drainage with 4,000 surplus kings. He also says he's not supposed to talk about the setnet fishery at the mouth of the river.

Or, at least, not talk about it except to repeat the company line:

"It's the management plan. It's the management plan. It's the management plan."

The management plan, by God, calls for prosecution of the early-season commercial fishery in northern Cook Inlet, and so it will be prosecuted. The plan, Rutz said, says the commercial fishery can't be closed unless the Deshka is closed, and sport fisheries biologist are, at this point, reluctant to take that drastic step.

It might come anyway. A replay of the 2008 season would not be a major surprise. If the river is closed in late June again, the setnetters -- who were supposed to be the first to sacrifice -- might lose one of their five scheduled fishing periods.

But by then, they will have caught thousands of kings.

Larry Engel of Palmer, the retired area sport fishery biologist and a one-time member of the state Board of Fisheries, said he isn't sure how this came to be, other than that the Fish Boards tend to forget promises made in the past. New members are appointed every year, he said; the history of what has happened leaves with the old members.

A new board writes a new management plan and suddenly the promises of the past become just so many words. Why not?

Commercial interests have a long history of successfully lobbying the board. That is the polite, political term used to describe how the puppet masters of the regulatory process manipulate their puppets.

The puppets on the Fish Board, not surprisingly, have a long history of putting commercial interests over angling interests, though it's not necessarily all their fault.

Commercial interests have a financial stake in the game. It encourages them to lobby long, hard and well. Anglers, no matter how much they might love the fishing game, in large part ignore the political one. They foolishly expect the regulators to keep in mind the best interests of the masses.

The results are what you will be seeing on the Deshka this year.

The commercial fishermen, Engel said, "should at least be sharing in the conservation burden."

But that's just not in the plan.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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