Mat-Su seeks driftnet limits to save coho; drifters push back

Zaz Hollander
Andy Couch

WASILLA -- The Mat-Su is adding another, less-famous front to the Cook Inlet fish war playing out at the marathon Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting that kicked off Friday at the Egan Center in Anchorage.

Mat-Su officials say the commercial drift fleet is hammering formerly world-class sport coho fisheries on the Little Su and Susitna rivers as well as the Susitna's sockeye salmon -- with little of the attention that shines on the Kenai's trophy king fishery.

"People are going out of business -- guides are going out, lodges have for-sale signs," said Howard Delo, a member of the Mat-Su fish commission and former state Board of Fisheries member. "It's the same things you hear happening on the Kenai. It's going on here too."

But driftnetters say the lack of salmon in the Mat-Su stems from pike predation, diseases, parasites, impaired water quality, blocked culverts and catch and release fisheries that depress spawning success, according to one Fisheries Board proposal filed by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

The board is charged with deciding this issue as part of 236 separate proposals to change fishing regulations in Upper Cook Inlet -- from the Anchor River to the Susitna -- during the two-week meeting.

The proposals include dozens of often-dueling proposals centered on Kenai River kings from sport and commercial fishing interests. At issue: Anticipated near-record low returns of king salmon coming back from the ocean to the Kenai this summer -- just under 22,000 total, according to a forecast from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Friday's session focused on reports from agencies and advisory groups -- topics included fish counting methods and chinook decline theories -- before turning to public testimony Saturday which is expected to run at least through Sunday.

The seven-member Mat-Su fish commission wants the Board of Fisheries to change the Inlet's drift fishery to more closely resemble the way commercial fisheries are handled in Bristol Bay. That means establishing a safety corridor up the middle of Cook Inlet to protect silvers and sockeye that tend to follow a tidal rip to the Mat-Su, Delo said.

The borough's proposal would refine a conservation corridor approved by the Board in 2011 to create an 8- to 13-mile band along the shore near the Kenai and Kasilof rivers at certain times, said Jim Colver, a Mat-Su Assembly member and vice-chairman of the borough fish commission.

"We're not opposed to commercial fishing," Colver said. "We're just working to have the drift fishery be executed smarter and more surgically."

In response, Inlet drift netters say the data behind the closed area is based on flawed assumptions that there are specific areas and times where northbound salmon can be avoided, assumptions not supported by recent genetic sampling work, according to proposals before the Board.

Drift groups want the Board to loosen the conservation corridor to an "as-needed" only practice based on run timing.

Homer drift fisherman Brian Harrison filed a comment with the Board encouraging members to start bounties or commercial fisheries on pike in the Susitna and Kenai drainages instead of changing existing management plans as suggested by the Mat-Su.

"Requiring harvests to take place in prescribed areas at predetermined times may not be providing the intended results," Harrison wrote. "Concentrating the fleet into small areas may have a more adverse effect on discreet stocks than allowing the effort to be spread out and having less of an effect on any one discreet stock."

Complicating this and any proposal to boost salmon numbers is the lack of hard science on just what is causing different kinds of salmon to struggle, especially in the Mat-Su because state research funding has historically focused on the Kenai.

Scientists tend to point to one or more factors, including ocean conditions, high-seas drift nets, predation by pike, bank erosion or other habitat problems such as culverts.

The Mat-Su Borough has spent $7 million with various partners making 86 culverts more salmon-friendly, according to borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan. Fish and Game last year eradicated 12,000 salmon-eating pike. Along with environmental studies being conducted on salmon as part of a dam proposal for the Susitna River, the borough has $7.5 million to spend on salmon restoration and research including a telemetry study that started last year in hopes of pinpointing the path salmon take to the Mat-Su through the Inlet, Colver said.

About three-quarters of Alaska's at-risk salmon runs return to Valley rivers and streams. Seven of the state's 11 "stocks of concern" are Mat-Su salmon: Susitna sockeye and kings from Alexander, Willow, Goose, Chulitna, Theodore and Lewis systems.

The state Fish and Game Department is asking the Board of Fisheries to add an additional king stock be added to the list.

None of them are silvers, despite the fact that silvers returning to the Little Su fell below a minimum spawning goal of 10,100 fish from 2009 until 2012, according to the report. Biologists say they expect to find above average returns into many Mat-Su watersheds once they finalize counts for last year, especially the Little Su and Knik Arm streams.

Borough officials link the spike in local silvers to the fact that the conservation corridor approved by the Board in 2011 went into effect last year after the resolution of a lawsuit.

Driftnetters caught about 184,700 silvers in the Inlet last year, according to Fish and Game statistics. Setnetters fishing closer to shore caught about 30,000. It's unclear how many were headed north to the Valley, agency officials say.

Delo said the borough wants the board to adhere to a plan for the northern Inlet that says that the state is supposed to manage silvers "primarily for the sport and guided sport fishery."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.