I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) for its dedication during the recent two-week Upper Cook Inlet management hearings. Nowhere else are fisheries managed through a more open public process than the one used here in Alaska.
Two compelling issues drove most of this year's BOF policy debate. The first included changes to commercial setnet and Kenai River sport fisheries management that will help preserve Kenai king salmon. Another included managing the Upper Cook Inlet commercial drift gillnet fishery so enough salmon pass through to Mat-Su streams and rivers, achieving escapement goals and allowing for a successful sport fishery. The BOF addressed both issues in an equitable and effective manner.
The Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan as amended and adopted is neither a victory for the sport fishery nor a defeat for the eastside setnet fishery, but is a clear victory for the conservation of king salmon. Revisions to the king plan put into regulation management measures taken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2013 to ensure that the minimum Kenai late-run king escapement goal was achieved. The new king salmon management plan actually includes more latitude and time to fish setnets than was available in 2013. At low king run sizes, the new plan effectively allocates a substantially greater share of the combined Kenai late-run king harvest to eastside setnetters in order to commercially harvest sockeyes (despite management-plan direction that late-run Kenai kings are to be managed primarily for sport and guided sport use). In addition, the new regulation includes voluntary incentives for use of more-selective gear (shallower nets) and clarity in management in August when higher numbers of large female king salmon enter the river.
The BOF unanimously approved a number of changes to the Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan based on careful consideration and extensive testimony from all sides. Changes to the drift plan included three elements. First, time and area was added in the southern part of Upper Cook Inlet and in the Kasilof and Kenai expanded corridors prior to July 15 in order to increase harvest of surplus sockeye bound for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers. Second, the drift fleet was moved away from the center of the Inlet to fish the near shore waters off the Kasilof and Kenai rivers from July 16 through July 31 in order to provide a conservation corridor for passage of northern bound sockeye and coho. Third, the BOF established an orderly transition from managing sockeye salmon primarily for commercial fisheries in July to managing the later running coho salmon primarily for sport fisheries in August.
The overall effect of the drift plan changes is likely to concentrate commercial harvest on surplus sockeye salmon bound for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, move sockeye and coho to the Mat-Su, and increase in-river abundance of coho salmon in all rivers and streams of Upper Cook Inlet. These changes fulfill a 35-year-old directive to manage coho salmon primarily for sport fisheries. At the same time, the new plan continues to provide ample opportunity for the drift gillnet fishery to enjoy the recent pattern of some of the most profitable salmon harvests on record.
There can be no mistake -- balancing competing demands in the fully allocated, fully utilized, mixed stock fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet is a difficult and often thankless task. Somebody will always come out of this process feeling that the BOF erred in not seeing the world correctly. This board worked extremely hard, took its responsibility seriously and confronted these challenges fairly. Everyone involved in the process and these fisheries owes them our sincere thanks for a hard job well done.
Mark Hamilton is chairman of the board of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
By MARK HAMILTON