An Alaska Department of Fish and Game effort to catch and sell several thousand salmon netted near the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to fund a department program has enraged Kenai Peninsula sportfishing advocates.
Netting began Tuesday morning and ended Thursday night after protests to the governor's office and the Fish and Game commissioner. A total of 3,899 sockeye were caught at the two locations -- 1,005 in the Kenai location, 2,894 at the Kasilof. An additional 48 king salmon were netted -- all but three from the Kasilof area.
The department expects to earn nearly $50,000 from the effort, money it will use to charter a boat that will help the commercial fish division manage July's red salmon fishery.
"Because of the issues that were raised, we were instructed here in Soldotna that the fishery will end tonight," Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, told the Peninsula Clarion on Thursday.
Fish and Game contracted with Icicle Seafoods, which hired commercial fishermen to conduct the setnet fishery, said Jeff Regnart, a regional supervisor for Fish and Game's commercial division. Icicle then writes Fish and Game a check.
"This set-net, 'fund raising' effort is wrong on so many levels," wrote Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, in a letter to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. "(It) targets early-run sockeye salmon bound for the world-famous sport fishery located at the Russian River and also will impact early-run Kenai River kings. Prosecution of this fishery at this time is outrageous and should be stopped immediately."
So far this season, the red salmon return to the Russian River has been achingly slow. Through Thursday, just 504 reds had passed the fish-counting weir below Lower Russian Lake. A year earlier on the same day, more than 22,000 had passed, allowing state fish mangers to double anglers' bag limits.
Similarly, this year's Kenai River king return started so poorly the river was closed to all king fishing on June 5. A late surge of fish allowed managers to reopen it a week later, and the return surged well above the biologists' minimum escapement goal late this week.
Fish and Game is monitoring the red and king runs across the region, and believes that both red and king salmon are running a little late this year.
"If we were worried, we'd stop the fishery," Regnart said, who added that the program has been going on annually since 2002.
The Legislature has authorized Fish and Game to sell fish caught during a test fishery.
However, Regnart acknowledged the just-completed setnet operation was more of a fundraising effort, or what the department calls "cost recovery." By targeting reds early in the first run, the salmon fetch a higher price, meaning fewer need to be harvested. That price is about $2.25 a pound now, and it declines as substantial red fisheries such as Bristol Bay get going, he said.
The effort began in response to a budget cut Fish and Game absorbed from the Legislature in 2002, Regnart said. Efforts to get the money restored in subsequent department budgets have failed, he added.
"It's a practice, a practice of the department," Regnart said. "We'd prefer not to do to it. We put in requests to get this funded with general fund dollars at least the last three years, but haven't gotten the money."
That's no excuse, Gease maintained, to pick off salmon headed toward anglers on the Kenai and Russian rivers -- salmon that the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan, adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 1977, says go to sport anglers.
"The commissioner and the governor's office are either naive or arrogant to expect there's not going to be any public backlash," Gease said.
Kevin Delaney, the former director of Fish and Game's Sport Fish Division, who's now a member of the Kenai sportfishing association, said that over the last two decades Fish and Game has funded several things using fish caught in a test fishery, which is permitted by law.
"This is not unusual in some respects," he said. "The department has the authority to sell fish they catch when they conduct a test fishery.
"But they've stretched the definitions here. They're not testing anything. They're simply harvesting fish and selling them. We don't have a problem with them doing it during the commercial fish season. The problem is they're outside the dates of the commercial fish season. There's a tension for sure between the statute the way it's written and the way it's been expanded."
Commercial fishing doesn't start until June 25 in the Kasilof section and July 8 in the Kenai section.
Regnart noted that some commercial fishermen are upset because they could be "forgoing potential opportunity, too." If more than 50,000 red salmon swim past the Kasilof River sonar before that commercial fishery is scheduled to begin, it can be opened early.
Some of the fish netted by Fish and Game would have gone past the Kasilof sonar, which was installed Tuesday. In its first two days of operation, 5,000 reds have passed the sonar.
Similar test fisheries have occurred in other parts of the state for crab as well as fish, Regnart said, with Fish and Game keeping the earnings.
Is it any different than if the Department of Natural Resources decided to mine gold on state land and boost its budget with the earnings?
"I would venture to say it's similar," Regnart said.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL