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Why roll the dice on Alaska's Kenai River kings by cutting escapement goals?

Ricky Gease
Keith Parker / cc via flickr

The basic principle of fisheries management is simple. Fish come first. Use science to ensure adequate escapement and then allow harvest by users. When uncertain about the science, act conservatively to prevent overfishing. If precautionary measures must be taken, share the burden of conservation fairly among all users.

When these principles are not followed, troubles arise, usually at the expense of the fish. Human history shows that our nature is to test the line between fishing and overfishing -- and far too often we roll the dice in favor of short-term profits only to see another fish stock run aground.

Kenai River king salmon are the largest salmon in the world -- Les Anderson’s iconic 97.3-pound world record fish was recently inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Boasting eight of the top 10 fish world record list, Kenai kings draw global interest. Last year’s closure for king fishing on the Kenai was front-page news in the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, like most every other major king stock in Alaska, Kenai kings are facing hard times with historic low returns, poor ocean survival, and uncertain future productivity. The science behind why kings statewide are in such low abundance is unknown. Already preseason restrictions and closures due to low king abundance are being announced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), which likely will effect almost every king fishery in the state.

The noticeable exception -- Kenai kings.

Why?

Because history is repeating itself, and immediate gains in a commercial fishery are being put ahead of the fish. Despite conservation bells ringing out across Alaska for kings, some want you to believe everything is fine on the Kenai and there is no cause for concern for these majestic fish. But when basic principles of fishery management are ignored and violated, it is a significant setback for king conservation and a true cause for alarm. It cries out that people take notice, demand accountability and call for action.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) is doing just that. Our recent activities to educate the public and legislators about former Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) member Vince Webster were fact-based and truthful, centered and focused on the conservation of Kenai kings. Within days, a KRSA call to action garnered more than 10,000 Facebook views.

The public listened and many contacted their legislators asking that Webster not be confirmed. KRSA’s well-reasoned and researched stance resonated among sport and personal use anglers who fish Upper Cook Inlet (UCI), and they let their voices be heard unlike any time before. Many of these legislators took notice and listened to their constituents. On a close vote, Webster was not confirmed.

Our concerns regarding Webster’s confirmation spotlighted the fact that basic principles of fishery management were not being followed. These included:

  • His failed leadership to provide adequate board oversight regarding an alarmingly low new interim escapement goal for Kenai kings, which drops the minimum number of king spawners needed by one third to 12,000 (using  Didson sonar counts);
  • His advocacy to set an optimum escapement goal even lower than the new minimum so commercial set netters could keep on fishing; and
  • His failed attempt to shift the burden of king conservation solely onto one user group, the personal use fishery, when no other group faced restrictions. These and other similar past actions added to the foundation and argument that he should no longer serve.

Unfortunately, Fish and Game is not without its share of responsibility on this issue. It rushed a new, interim, strikingly low escapement goal for Kenai without adequate peer review. Contrary to professional and standard department protocols, Fish and Game lowered the new range so much so that two-thirds of the new goal has no escapement data to support it. What was the motivation to set the lower end of the escapement goal less than 50 percent below the lowest known escapement ever seen? It seems simply to reduce the likelihood that fisheries, primarily the commercial set net fishery, would face restriction this year. The lone independent peer reviewer stated that the same result could be said for a lower end of the escapement goal at zero.

Alaskans who directly benefit from Upper Cook Inlet non-commercial salmon fisheries want salmon escapement goals set based on the best available science. When the best science is uncertain, as it is with the new Kenai king goal, the resource must be adequately protected. If there is a harvestable surplus, allow reasonable opportunity for all user groups, not just commercial set netters.  

Partially as a result of Webster’s actions while on the Fish Board, Fish and Game seems content to roll the dice this year.

Are you? If not, follow this story at www.krsa.com and share our conviction that the fish come first.   

Ricky Gease is Executive Director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.