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Alaska dipnetters' share of red salmon nosedived last summer, but further cuts proposed

Craig Medred
Thousands of Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, hoping to catch their limit of sockeye salmon. Loren Holmes photo

As the Alaska Board of Fisheries heads towards its end-of-January meeting amid a drone of complaints that the Kenai River dipnet salmon fishery is out of control, new catch figures from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicate dipnetters last summer really didn't catch diddly-squat.

The official harvest is pegged at 347,222 red, or sockeye, salmon. That's an average of fewer than 10 sockeye per permit holder, and only about two-thirds of the 2012 and 2011 catches.

Dipnetters were not allowed to keep king salmon in 2013 because of a weak run, although the commercial fishery killed more than 2,700 of the big fish.

Commercial fishermen also caught about 2.1 million sockeye worth $39.1 million dockside, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In terms of profit, the year ranked as the eighth best for the commercial fishery since 1960, according to the state agency.

Meanwhile, things were not going so well in the people's fishery open to all Alaska residents hoping to fill a freezer for the winter. The 2013 sockeye dipnet catch, according to Fish and Game, was way short of the record 2011 catch of 537,765 and the big 2012 catch of 526,992. 

This has not, however, stopped the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, one of the most powerful players in Cook Inlet fisheries politics, from proposing the Fish Board cut dipnet limits by at least half and ban dipnetting from boats -- the most efficient way to catch fish.

'Limits are way too high'

Many Kenai Peninsula residents detest the hordes of people from Alaska's urban core who descend on the river to kill fish in July, so they’ve turned up the heat on the dipnet fishery, too.

"A parade of concerned citizens" showed up at a Kenai City Council meeting earlier this month to complain about parking problems, dangerous boating, and all the fish dipnetters were catching, the Peninsula Clarion reported.

The local newspaper reported Bruce Friend complained "the limits are way too high. Nobody needs 150 fish.”

The harvest limit for the personal-use fishery is 25 salmon for a permit holder and an additional 10 salmon for each member of a household. So a married couple would need 12 children, relatives or others living in their home to qualify for 150 fish.

"Garland Blanchard, a fishing guide from Homer, said he (also) came across three cases of people from the Lower 48 that had at least four times the allotted limit of sockeye salmon,'' the Clarion reported. "He met a guy from Las Vegas on a plane that showed him a picture of 500 pounds of sockeyes he caught from the Kenai River.

“'These are non-residents taking fish out of our river,' Blanchard said. 'We have a serious issue with enforcement.'"

Though Blanchard was identified as a "fishing guide from Homer," he used to identify himself as a third-generation commercial fisherman. Commercial fishermen have repeatedly used the nonresident bogeyman as a foil in the fight with dipnetters over who gets to catch Kenai salmon. 

Nonresidents are prohibited from dipnetting, though there is no doubt some do. There is equally no doubt that some Kenai dipnetters overcome by salmon-bashing bloodlust catch more fish than they can eat over the course of the winter.

Dipnet catch just small potatoes?

Still, James Hasbrouck, the regional supervisor for sport fisheries for Fish and Game, said he believes the estimate of a sockeye dipnet catch of about 350,000 fish is accurate.

And that number, in the bigger scheme of things, makes the Kenai dipnet fishery small potatoes. After the commercial catch of 2.1 million, and the dipnet catch of fewer than 350,000 last summer, about 1.36 million sockeye spawners still escaped into the river. 

That was approximately 160,000 more than the maximum desired spawning goal, and 460,000 over the minimum escapement goal. Had the dipnetters matched their catches from 2011 and 2012, they might have been able to hold the harvest to within the desired range that Fish and Game believes will produce the best returns in future years.

But that didn't happen. 

Whether any of that will discourage the Board of Fish from messing with the length of the dipnet season, which has been shortened over the years, or the catch limit remains to be seen. The board starts meeting Friday in Anchorage.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com