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What exactly is the impact of setnet bycatch on Alaska's Kenai River king salmon fishery?

Craig Medred
State of Alaska photo

Commercial setnet fishermen in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, who find themselves under fire from an initiative aimed at shutting them down, are not alone. All along the U.S. Pacific Coast, it seems, efforts are underway to ban or restrict an old commercial fishing gear type that’s unable to discriminate between various species of salmon.

Commercial fishers in Washington state this summer failed in a court bid to stop a ban on gillnets in the main stem of the Columbia River. Commercial fishers in Alaska are now considering similar litigation in an attempt to stop the proposed ballot initiative imposing a set-gillnet ban in non-subsistence areas of Alaska.

The Alaska ban is aimed primarily at Cook Inlet where gillnets fishing huge runs of sockeye salmon inadvertently catch diminishing numbers of late-run king salmon bound for the Kenai River. It is a bycatch problem similar to that on the Columbia. There the issue is with the number of wild Columbia kings caught by setnetters primarily fishing for hatchery kings.

Oregon and Washington, states bisected by the lower Columbia, are solving that problem by replacing setnet fisheries with seine fisheries. Setnets catch fish by the gills and hold them by the head until they are removed by fishermen. Sometimes the fish die in the nets before removal. Sometimes they manage to pull free and continue towards their spawning grounds, but a study in Alaska's Bristol Bay indicates the damage to the escapees might be greater than what appear to be just "net marks" on their bodies.

"A substantial portion -- 11 to 29 percent -- of spawning sockeye salmon exhibited clear signs of past entanglement with commercial gillnets," a study detailed in the Journal of Applied Ecology said. "Survival among such fish was significantly reduced. More than half of the fish that reach natal spawning grounds with fishery-related injuries fail to reproduce."

The researchers suggested in-river spawning goals for Bristol Bay sockeyes should be increased by from 5 to 15 percent to reflect the large number of fish injured in the commercial net fisheries and warned that it’s unlikely the problems found there are limited to Bristol Bay.

"Given the magnitude of non-retention in this fishery," they wrote, "explicit consideration of non-retention mortality may be warranted across a wide range of exploited populations."

Not long after that study was complete, fisheries scientists in Washington and Oregon began studying the use of beach and purse seines as a replacement for Columbia gillnets. Plans are now underway to phase in the former gear type and get rid of the latter.

"Reforms jump-started by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in mid-2012 and completed by the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions this year are bringing the most sweeping overhaul of lower Columbia River fisheries in 80 years,“ reported the The Columbian newspaper. "The reforms...require live-capture commercial fishing methods in the main Columbia -- such as purse seines and beach seines -- designed to harvest abundant hatchery stocks and release wild fish."

Harvests of wild Columbia Chinook in mixed-stock fisheries have long been a major issue in a region where the big fish have struggled for decades because of environmental damage done to the watershed by hydroelectric dams.

Dams are not an issue in Alaska, and setnetters here have argued their bycatch of late-run Kenai River kings -- believed to be among the largest Chinook in the Pacific -- is not a problem.

"...The setnetʼs low 13 percent exploitation rate of Kenai River kings is nearly insignificant when compared to the threat that these fish face due to the completely unbridled growth of the in-river sport fishery," the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association said in a November press release. 

The United Fishermen of Alaska, the state's largest commercial fishing organization, followed up with a press release warning that banning a commercial gear-type by initiative would "harm Alaska's resource management traditions and methods. All resource users -- including oil, mining and timber -- should resist the temptation to have their industry managed and regulated by 'major rule'." 

The press release made no mention of the Pebble Mine where "major rule“ powered by commercial fishing interests appears to have set back for decades, if not killed, development of one of the world's largest copper deposits. But the press release did concede Alaska king salmon stocks are struggling everywhere.

However, it added that "eliminating nets doesn't target the problem, which is in-river and ocean survival of small Chinook salmon."

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists agree with the latter claim, but take issue with the former. In most Alaska watersheds, they say, in-river survival does not appear to be a problem. The rivers appear to be producing adequate numbers of small salmon. The problem is that the fish that go to sea don't return in the numbers of old.

Salmon interceptions in high-seas gillnet fisheries were once implicated as part of the problem for Alaska salmon declines, but those fisheries are now gone. All of which has brought the debate about interception closer to home.

While the Kenai fishermen's association claims an interception rate of only 13 percent, the reality is that no one knows exactly how many kings are killed by Kenai setnets.

State fisheries managers note the 13 percent number reflects only those kings setnetters sell to processors. Fish they keep for personal use, or sell for cash, or give to friends are not counted in the catch. The number of such fish is thought to be small, but the incentive for setnetters to make bycatch disappear in this way is huge given the political fish wars in which setnet king bycatch has been embroiled for more than two decades.

Still, the larger issue might well involve the number of kings that escape the nets injured or drop out dead. That has never been studied. State fisheries biologists say there was never a reason to spend the money on such studies. With Kenai salmon runs large and healthy, the incidental harvest, even at its historic highs when setnetters were catching an average of 14,000-kings per year in the late 1980s, was insignificant from a biological standpoint.

But biologists say a 13 percent interception rate, coupled with net-related damage to as much as 29 percent of the return, results in a mortality rate of about 42 percent of a declining stock of salmon. Which could be a serious problem.

The late-run Chinook spawners returning to the Kenai this year numbered 17,028, according to Fish and Game date. It was the lowest return on record, and it was the first time the number of spawners had fallen below 20,000. It would have marked the first time Fish and Game failed to meet the spawning goal, but for the fact the goal has just been lowered from a minimum of 17,800 to a minimum of 15,000

It is against this backdrop Alaska setnetters now find themselves facing the same sort of full-frontal attack that has put an end to setnet fisheries elsewhere. These are tough times for those who live and love to work the beaches of Cook Inlet in the summer.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.