The Alaska Board of Fisheries on Friday kicks off a two-week meeting with a fish war at its center.
At odds: the Cook Inlet setnet fleet, which target sockeye near the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and groups representing king salmon-dependent Kenai guides, charter operators, and tourism businesses.
Sportfishing interests are asking the state to protect plummeting numbers of Kenai River king salmon by restricting commercial fishing. Setnet groups are pressing for access to healthy runs of sockeye.
The seven-member board will weigh a total of 236 separate proposals to change fishing regulations in Upper Cook Inlet during the meeting at the Egan Civic & Convention Center. Public comment, scheduled to last at least three days, is expected to be rowdy and divided.
Along with the much-anticipated Kenai River conversation and a proposal to prohibit fishing near Soldotna's boat launch, a number of proposals center on Mat-Su fisheries such as the Susitna River and Knik River areas like Jim Creek.
Nearly 500 public comments came in before the meeting even started. Only mass mailings for hot-button issues like aerial wolf control and bear hunts near McNeil River exceeded that total, state officials say.
"Everybody's well aware of what's at hand with this meeting," said Katie Sechrist, with the state Commercial Fisheries Information Office.
Kings on the Kenai drive a multi-million dollar sportfishing industry, with tourists and Alaskan anglers alike spending money at local restaurants, stores and lodges. But state forecasts for king runs this summer predict "well below average" returns, among the lowest in 29 years of records.
The largely family-run setnet fleet uses gillnets to trap sockeye, or red salmon, for sale. But unlike the prediction for kings, sockeye forecasts call for a big return, more than four million this summer. Some say the fish could be worth more than $80 million to the setnetters.
The setnet fleet catches about 13 percent of the kings bound for the Kenai, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Even though they're fishing for sockeye, their gillnets also snag chinook.
That's where the war comes in.
Commercial fishermen say they aren't hurting Kenai kings as much as the sport anglers are, and shouldn't have to sacrifice their shot at healthy runs.
"Being held back from harvesting sockeye when our king catch is so small, that's our biggest issue right now," said Robert Williams, president of the 300-member Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, a commercial fishing advocacy group.
Frank Mullen, a 68-year-old Homer financial advisor, is entering his fiftieth season as a setnetter. Mullen, raised on the Kenai, points to bank erosion as an example of how hundreds of boats per day "dragging hooks through spawning beds" have degraded the river.
"The biggest elephant in the room is habitat concerns in the Kenai River," he said, even after allowing for other possible factors in king declines such as Bering Sea trawlers.
Sport fishing interests keeping a wary eye on poor summer returns, however, say the only way to protect Kenai kings is to share the burden of fishing restrictions.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is proposing numerous regulation changes including "paired restrictions" that would force the setnet fleet and other fish users to cut back if river guides and anglers had to.
If guides and anglers cut back to make sure enough kings survive to spawn, then everybody should share the burden, said Ricky Gease, the group's executive director.
"What we're seeking if, for instance, the river goes to single hook, no bait that there are stepdown measures in the personal use fishery, the marine recreational fishery, and the commercial set-net fishery," Gease said.
Right now, either the setnet fishery is on or it's off -- everybody's fishing or no one is, he said. The sportfishing group wants the Board of Fisheries to consider some "intermediate" steps such as limits on the number of nets used or using shallower nets that target sockeye toward the surface but not deeper-swimming kings.
The Alaska Sport Fishing Association is asking the Board to ban setnetting altogether, explaining that the average gross fishing income of about $25,000 can be "readily replaced."
"ASFA, with great sorrow and empathy for those who will suffer, respectfully recommends to this Board that all commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet and in those areas that would substantially diminish the flow of fish to this area be terminated," the Anchorage-based Association stated in a comment letter filed before the meeting.
The numbers at the heart of the debate are king salmon escapement numbers -- the minimum number the state deems necessary to spawn and make enough salmon to sustain future runs.
Setnetters agreed to a higher late-run escapement goal of 15,000 last year even though it reduced their catch compared to the previous goal of 12,000 did, said Williams, of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association. But now the sport fishing side wants to tip the number up to 17,800 or 20,000 even though nearly three quarters of the kings caught last summer by setnetters were under 30 inches and not big enough to target in the sport fishery.
The Association is asking the Board to keep the goal at 15,000, he said. "The higher the goal gets, the more king salmon get allocated to in-river users, less fishing time."
Geasy said that higher request takes in new state fish-counting methods and allows for a margin of error.
"We looked at the risks of overfishing," he said. "At 15,000, you're kind of right on the edge."
Given the deep divides between them, it's tempting to weigh the sport and commercial proposals by taking a look at the value of each fishery.
Tempting, but problematic.
"People throw around this term 'value' and the problem is that value means all kinds of things," said Gunnar Knapp, a longtime fisheries economist who directs the Institute of Social and Economic Research. "We benefit from these fisheries in multiple and different ways. The problem is there's not agreement on which ways matter most."
Commercial industry members point to their sales value, which dwarfs that of the sport fishing side, but the sportfishing side points to their impact on the local economy, Knapp said. Comparing jobs gets tricky because not all the fishermen or guides are Alaskan (though it appears about 80 percent of setnet permits are held by Alaskans and about 75 percent of Kenai River guides live in state).
Regardless, the value question is the wrong one to ask, he said. "The real question is, what are the consequences of whatever policy choice you are deciding?"
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER