The Alaska Board of Fisheries, in a key vote Monday, sided with Mat-Su guides and fish experts pleading for restrictions on Cook Inlet's commercial drift gillnet fleet to save flagging Valley runs.
The board, more than halfway through a two-week session at the Egan Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage, unanimously backed the new rules for an existing plan that guides the drift fleet.
Several members described a sense of urgency given low numbers of Susitna River sockeye -- a priority because biologists deem them at-risk - but also weak runs of coho bound for once-popular fishing spots like the Little Susitna River and Jim Creek.
Many Valley residents drive to the Kenai Peninsula to fill their freezers these days, said board chair Karl Johnstone, an Anchorage resident and retired Alaska Superior Court judge.
"The population of this area has tried to make their voices heard at this meeting," Johnstone said. "We had an enormous amount of public comment."
Measures approved by the board Monday give the drift fleet more room to fish for plentiful Kenai and Kasilof sockeye in the first part of July but remove an Inlet-wide fishery in late July to reduce pressure on northern-bound fish.
The plan puts an emphasis on fishing corridors instead of fishing throughout the Inlet. It adds a new 80- to 100-square-mile corridor from Anchor Point to the Ninilchik River. It also restricts the fleet if sockeye catch drops off after Aug. 1, when more coho show up.
The plan should get more stocks into northern streams and give the commercial fleet the chance to fish hard early in the season, said board vice-chair Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna bed and breakfast owner.
During testimony to the board, numerous drift net fishermen blamed culverts, pike, shore erosion and other problems with habitat as the biggest threats to salmon in the Valley.
Kluberton rejected the contention that the board should "just give up on sending fish to the northern district" and said habitat problems aren't all that's wrong.
"It makes no sense to give up on a piece of real estate that's the size of Scotland," he said.
Several members did express concerns too many sockeye could slip past nets into the Kenai and Kasilof systems, overloading or "overescaping" spawning grounds and habitat.
Reaction was immediate.
Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Colver, a member of the borough's fish and wildlife commission, hailed what he called the board's "historic" decision and likened it to banning fish traps at statehood.
"We will look back on this action to implement conservation measures as a game changer in restoring the once robust salmon runs in the Valley," Colver said in an email.
The Alaska Salmon Alliance, representing fishermen and processors on the Kenai Peninsula, criticized the decision.
"Like many Alaskans, we are discouraged by the needless, unscientific attacks on the more than 5,000 Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and their families that have occurred over the last 10 days," Arni Thomson, Executive Director of group, said in an email. "These restrictions threaten an industry that pumps over $100-million in payroll directly into Southcentral Alaska's economy every year. Alaskans cannot afford more half-baked attacks on our right to harvest our natural resources."
Drift fisherman Frank Mullen, providing a stream of Twitter updates from the meeting, fired off one after the decision that accused the board of ignoring science in their decision.
Mullen did say that Monday's board action will give the fleet more time in the middle of the Inlet than they've had in recent years. But he condemned the new Anchor Point corridor area as "another box they can put us in with no fish" during the peak of the sockeye run.
The board is deciding more than 230 separate proposals during the meeting that started Jan. 31. Johnstone over the weekend hinted that the session may run a day or two over.
During public testimony last week, Mat-Su fishing guides and borough fish commission members told the board they favored corridors where the fleet can target sockeye at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers while reducing catches of fish bound for northern waters.
New information the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released Friday evening, however, indicates roughly as many Susitna sockeye get caught in the main Inlet as in the terminal fishing areas.
That would indicate the Mat-Su proposal doesn't conserve sockeye, "so quite honestly it's just not working," drift fisherman Bruce Gabrys said.
Mat-Su fish experts called the conservation measures essential because they help coho.
"The fact it's conservation neutral for sockeye, I'll take it at face value but it is an absolutely slam dunk conservation benefit for coho," Mac Minard, a consultant for the Mat-Su fish commission, said in an interview Saturday morning. "It is irrefutable."
The Mat-Su is home to seven of Alaska's 11 at-risk salmon runs: Susitna sockeye and king salmon from the Alexander, Willow, Goose creek systems as well as the Chulitna, Theodore and Lewis rivers.
No coho made the list, despite three or four years of poor returns.
In a separate unanimous vote, the board limited fishing during coho season at Jim Creek near the Knik River to Wednesday through Sunday only and implemented a ban on fishing once an angler reaches their salmon bag limit.
Since 2006, the area has hosted the second largest freshwater coho fishery in Alaska with angler hours doubling in the most recent 10-year period that state biologists analyzed. Despite restrictions, however, coho returns missed state spawning goals for three years out of the last four.
The original proposal before the board would have closed the creek from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. daily but board members didn't want to eliminate the popular after-work fishing destination. Any board action can be reconsidered within 24 hours and isn't effective until written into regulations.
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By ZAZ HOLLANDER