Setnet fishermen were thrown a lifeline Wednesday when the state fisheries board rejected a petition from Kenai River sport fishermen that would have left the setnet fishermen sitting on the beach for the remainder of their season.
The board voted 3-3 against considering the petition, deciding that no emergency existed.
The shutdown of the setnet fishery in July was one measure taken to preserve the few king salmon returning to the Kenai this summer. King salmon numbers appear to be the lowest on record and resulted in the shutdown of both the in-river sport king fishery and the setnet red salmon fishery.
The problem is that setnetters near the Kenai and Kasilof rivers net a certain amount of kings while fishing for red salmon. Given the very low number of kings this summer, state fishery managers felt that every one of them was needed upriver to spawn. The season for Kenai king sportfishing ended Tuesday.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association sought to extend the ban on setnetters to protect late-run kings in a run that also appears weak. That means Kenai River eastside setnetters should be allowed to fish a couple of days a week until mid-August when their season ends. In the past three years, the harvest of king salmon by setnetters during this period averaged 172 fish out of about 14,000 reds, fishery managers said.
Ricky Gease, the association's executive director, said about 2,000 king salmon have yet to enter the Kenai.
"Every king counts at this point," he said.
Wednesday's vote was welcomed by setnetter Justin Cramer of Eagle River, who said he and about 20 family members have been sidelined by the emergency closures. The family has invested about $1 million in their setnet operation and has been able to fish just 12 hours so far this summer, he said.
In the one opener they were allowed, the family caught between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of red salmon that sold for about $1.50 a pound. There were four or five kings among the reds, Cramer said.
Cramer said he won't get his hopes up until he gets word that the Department of Fish and Game has green-lighted the setnetters for fishing Thursday. If the call comes through and another emergency order isn't issued to close the fishery, he planned to head to the Kenai Peninsula Wednesday night. Under the management plan, setnetters are allowed to fish Mondays and Thursdays.
"I am going to go there tonight and scratch out the season," he said.
However, he said even if setnetters are allowed to fish, it won't make much of a difference because it's so late in the season.
"I am not going to make a dime going down," Cramer said.
While very low numbers of kings showed up, the Kenai's total run of red salmon is estimated at 4.6 million fish. Fishery managers say more than 1 million fish have yet to enter the river.