Big changes are coming to the Kenai River this summer.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries on Wednesday approved new ways to protect precariously low numbers of late-run Kenai kings that members say splits the burden between sport anglers and commercial setnet fishermen.
The decision to tweak the Kenai River late-run king salmon plan, one of the most anticipated actions of a two-week session at Anchorage's Egan Center, came in a 6-1 vote and adds several new tools to existing rules.
The seven-member board's action Wednesday for the first time codifies "paired restrictions" that give state fish managers the authority to reduce both sport and commercial fishing in Cook Inlet if king numbers look low.
The trigger: Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that fewer than 22,500 kings will swim past a sonar counter about eight miles up the Kenai.
Another action strives to give setnetters a chance to go after plentiful sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet using an experimental idea: shallower nets that may let deep-swimming kings pass but are also expected to cut into the fleet's sockeye catch.
Sport fishing interests applauded the board changes as conservation-minded.
"We're entering into some kind of uncharted territory in the returns," said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, saying he hopes that kings rebound with the last several years of limits. "There's no guarantee -- look at the Yukon, that's not returned -- there's no guarantee of future performance. If there's not enough kings, nobody's going to be fishing."
But at least some members and supporters of the setnet fleet balked, saying the changes unfairly punish them when sport anglers are far more responsible for the declines.
Ninilchik's Jeff Berger in a letter to the board called the new net proposals untested and a huge expense to the fleet that could overload the Kenai with sockeye that get past gillnets.
"This effort is clearly (an) effort to starve out commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and advance the goals of the individuals that initiated the ballot initiative to eliminate gillnetting," wrote Berger, a manager with Copper River Seafoods.
The chinook, or king, salmon is Alaska's state fish but runs throughout the state are struggling, except in a few spots. Scientists blame everything from ocean conditions to habitat damage to at-sea trawl fleets.
On the Kenai, state biologists expect only 19,700 late-run kings to return starting in July. Only 2,230 early-run kings are forecast.
The hunt for the Kenai's big kings built the area's tourism businesses, guide companies, riverfront housing development, lodges -- an entire economy hinging around a chalky blue-green river.
The family-dominated setnet fleet fishes for sockeye but also snags about 13 percent of the kings bound for the Kenai from gillnets strung from skiffs up to a mile and half off the beach at the Kenai and Kasilof river mouths.
The board's foray into the so-called "fish war" over how to divvy up the Kenai's once-thriving salmon drew hundreds of comments. That's more than Petersburg's John Jensen said he's seen on any one issue in his 12 years on the state Board of Fisheries.
Even some board members acknowledged the new management scheme is untested and based on any number of unknowns.
Jensen, the lone no vote and a crab and halibut fisherman, said he couldn't support the emphasis on the net changes for setnetters given the lack of science behind some kind of predictable "zone" where fish hit a net.
The changes aren't perfect, but they are fair, said board chair Karl Johnstone, a retired Alaska Superior Court judge.
"There's no way we can satisfy everybody. I have not heard anybody tell me this is great. I've heard people say this is going to hurt us from both sides of the aisle," Johnstone said. "It's not our job to please people. It's our job to protect the fish."
New policies on the timing of setnet openings give managers at the state Department of Fish and Game the flexibility to make changes on a day-to-day basis based on both king and sockeye abundance and also tides, vice-chairman Tom Kluberton said.
Both sport and commercial fisheries closed by late July last year after managers predicted trouble achieving minimum spawning goals for late-run kings.
Under the limits approved Wednesday for this year, Kenai sport fishermen would first see a no-bait limit and then catch-and-release only before fishing was closed.
Dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai would have to throw back any kings they caught once the sport fishing side fell under limits, as in recent years.
The setnet fleet could use shallower nets on a voluntary basis to see if they catch fewer kings and buy themselves enough additional time on the water to make up for any reductions in sockeye catch.
A new part of the Kenai plan gives managers the chance to reduce setnet gear as necessary, Kluberton said. Instead of shutting down altogether, setnetters could use two sets of 45-mesh nets or three sections of 29-mesh if limits force sport anglers to stop using bait.
If managers continue to forecast low king returns, setnetters would drop to one larger-mesh net or two smaller ones.
"It incentivizes the use of shallower nets," Kluberton said. "It in no way requires anyone to go out, cut their net and buy 29 (mesh) gear."
Kings near the Kenai River swam at an average depth of 10 feet lower than the sockeye targeted by setnetters in the Inlet, according to research Canadian researcher David Welch shared with the Board of Fisheries on Friday. But Welch's sample size was relatively small: he caught and tagged just 25 adult chinook and 51 sockeye in lower Cook Inlet.
Under the board's decision Wednesday, setnetters could get another 36 hours on the water from the beginning of August until the middle of the month if at least 16,500 kings and "not less than" 22,500 are expected to return.
Enforcing the new policies will be a challenge, especially the shallower nets with smaller mesh, said Capt. Burke Waldron, who advises the board on behalf of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
Say a wildlife trooper thinks a 45-mesh net may be marked as 29 to comply with chinook protections, Waldron explained to the board. That trooper has to count the mesh -- a "time-consuming, difficult and dangerous" job in Cook Inlet, he said. Enforcement action could include seizing nets and significant penalties.
"Being that it's measures to use at low abundance, we'll take an aggressive stance on it when we do find people violating, and certainly would hope to have the board's support with that," Waldron said.
The board's actions Wednesday will be effective once the new regulations are finalized, barring a reconsideration within 24 hours.
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER