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Alaska Board of Fisheries calls for shallower setnets in hopes of saving Kenai Kings

Craig Medred

Commercial setnet fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula will be given the opportunity this summer to shift their operations to shallower nets in an attempt to save king salmon in Alaska's renowned Kenai River if the run is as weak as predicted

The Wednesday action by the Alaska Board of Fisheries comes about a decade after shallower nets were ordered for the state's Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Bristol Bay is the site of the world's largest harvest of sockeye salmon.

The sockeye run in Cook Inlet off the north coast of the Kenai is a fraction the size of Bristol Bay, but far more contentious. The reason is Anchorage, the state's largest city, and a Kenai tourism and sportfishing industry that has grown around a fabled run of what are billed as "the world's largest king salmon."

Significant numbers of those kings are caught each year by setnetters. King salmon anglers from the state's urban core, along with river fishing guides and Outside anglers, have long been upset about that. But the issue has reached a fever pitch in the past several years as Kenai king runs have sputtered and shrunk.

A 15,000-fish spawning goal for late-run kings was barely met last July despite late-season closures of both the commercial net fishery on Kenai beaches and the hook-and-line fishery in the river.

With an even weaker run of kings expected this summer, the board went looking for ways to reduce the catch in the setnet fishery short of a full scale closure. The end result was a plan board member Tom Kluberton, owner of a Talkeetna bed and breakfast, described as an effort to "incentivize" the use of shallower nets that some setnetters believe will catch fewer kings.

The tentative regulation approved by the board says that if the return of kings is projected below 22,500 fish, fishery managers can restrict setnetters to two traditional Kenai nets or "three set gillnets that are each not more than 35 fathoms in length and 29 meshes in depth."

Setnets hang like curtains in the water, the top supported by floats, the bottom held down by a lead line. Opponents of these nearly invisible monofilament nets refer to them as "curtains of death." They snag fish by their gills and hold them until they die or until fishermen pull them out of the net.

A traditional 45-mesh net extends more than 6 feet deeper than a 29-mesh net. There is some science and a large number of non-scientific anecdotes that indicate kings will swim beneath these nets while large numbers of sockeye continue getting caught above.

No one knows if the new nets will reduce king catches, or whether many setnetters will be willing to modify their gear. But board chairman Karl Johnstone, a retired Superior Court judge, said it's worth a try.

Only board member John Jensen, a commercial fishermen from Petersburg, objected. There simply isn't enough evidence to support the idea the plan will work, he said, setnetters don't have the money or the time to spend modifying their nets.

"A lot of these people have jobs," Jensen said; they can't be spending hours away from their day jobs working on fishing gear. One setnetter who experimented with 29-mesh nets last year said it only cost him about $12 in twine to cut the lead-line off a 45-mesh net and reattach it to a 29-mesh net. But it did take time.

The 29-mesh proposal split setnetters. Some are willing to try almost anything to maximize their catch of sockeye -- the Kenai's money fish. Others believe they have a god-given right to a portion of the king catch and fear that if they stop catching, killing and selling the big fish, they will lose access to them.

Kings represent a tiny fraction of the value of commercial salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet, and both state and independent studies have shown the fish are orders of magnitude more valuable in-river.

There is far more money, those studies have included, in getting someone to come to Alaska to catch a fish than in catching a fish in Alaska and shipping it to market.

Along with providing setnetters options on nets, the plan approved by the Board of Fisheries Wednesday linked reductions to in-river fishing to rollbacks in the setnet fishery. If Kenai anglers are banned from keeping kings because the run is weak, the setnet fishery is "restricted to no more than 12 hours of fishing time per week, with a 36-hour continuous closure," the plan says.

If the projected king return drops below 22,500, but there are still enough kings trickling into the Kenai to keep the sport fishery open and still meet a minimum spawning goal of 15,000 fish, the setnetters will get to fish for 36 hours per week with two nets, down from the usual three, or with three of the shortened, 29-mesh nets.

The board is hopeful enough setnetters will experiment with 29-mesh nets to determine whether the gear modification really can cut down on king salmon bycatch.

"We need to experiment with this," Johnstone said.

"It'll give us some data," said board member Orville Huntington, a subsistence fisherman from Huslia.

Some setnetters fear the results if the experiment is successful. Success would likely lead the Board to order the use of 29-mesh nets in the fishery, forever reducing the king catch of commercial fishermen.

The citizen board -- members of which are appointed by the governor -- voted 6-1 in favor the plan. Jensen, who was first appointed to the board by former Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003, was the lone "no" vote.

Many anglers who think the Kenai setnet fishery should simply be eliminated were angry with the board's action. They said it didn't do enough to protect kings. One sport fishing group continues to push an initiative that would ban set gillnetting along the south shore of the Kenai and in other urban areas of the state.

Set gillnets have been banned in many parts of the country because they catch any fish, or sometimes birds and marine mammals, that happen to swim into the entangling mesh. That can create big problems in fisheries where various salmon are mixed together.

Kenai kings and sockeyes are but one so-called "mixed stock" problem in Cook Inlet. There is an equally big problem with mixed stocks of sockeyes and silvers from the Kenai, Kasilof, Susitna, Yentna, Talkeetna, Deshka and other rivers. They appear to hit upper Cook Inlet in one big scrum of salmon.

A lot of them end up caught in the gillnets of another commercial fishery -- the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishery. The driftnetters are primarily fishing for Kenai sockeye, but residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough contend the fleet's incidental catch of silver and sockeye salmon from that area is so high that salmon runs there are being crushed.

Seven different salmon stocks in the Susitna basin have been listed as species of "concern" because of their depressed status. That is sort of the Alaska state equivalent of a "threatened species."

Next, the board will begin deliberating on a plan to do something about that.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.