In a grand experiment, Kenai setnetters try using shallower nets to protect king salmon

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

A grand experiment in Cook Inlet fisheries management began along the coast of the Kenai Peninsula on Thursday when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game instituted a new commercial fishing rule intended to minimize bycatch of prized king salmon.

With red salmon apparently on the verge of swarming east-side Inlet beaches, the agency opened commercial setnetting from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., but told setnetters they had a choice of fishing only two nets, which would likely cut their catch by a third, or three shallower nets, which it is hoped will allow the catch of just as many red salmon as normal while allowing king salmon to slip past unharmed.​

A standard net hangs down about 18 feet from a line of floats on the surface of the water. Some setnetters, some biologists and the Alaska Board of Fisheries believe most king salmon swim deeper in the water than red salmon, and that reducing the depth of the net to about 12 feet will allow the big fish to slip beneath the monofilament that snags reds by the gills.

Fight for their lives

The shift in regulations to implement this experiment came out of a contentious Fish Board meeting in February, when commercial, sport and personal-use dipnet fishermen lobbied the board for a host of changes in Cook Inlet salmon management.

About 1,000 people actively fish commercial salmon permits in Cook Inlet. They are fiercely protective of their fishing, politically powerful, and for decades influenced the agenda for the Fish Board. But growing sport and personal-use fisheries, coupled with a crash in king salmon numbers, have altered the politics of management in recent years and the commercial fishermen now find themselves in what they consider a fight for their lives.

Alaskans in 1973 approved a constitutional amendment limiting the number of commercial salmon permits everywhere in the state. It was intended to help ensure commercial fishermen could make a year's living over the course of the summer. The plan has worked well in Bristol Bay, but created problems in other areas.

Cook Inlet is a hotspot in the ongoing struggles over what the state calls "limited entry.'' Almost none of the Cook Inlet commercial fishermen can make a year's wage in the summer anymore. Salmon returns just aren't big enough.

Plus the Inlet is at the doorstep of ever-growing Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where an increasing number of Alaskans resent the fact that a small group of commercial fishermen gets such a large slice of the salmon pie. The commercial fishery accounts for about 80 percent of the catch. The rest is split between about 22,000 to 30,000 personal-use dipnetters and more than 150,000 licensed anglers.

Personal-use dipnetters, in particular, were upset on Thursday when the state ordered full-on fishing in both the setnet and driftnet fisheries to try to choke off what looked to be a big surge of red salmon bound for the Kenai. The dipnetters fish to fill their freezers and think that form of fishing should take precedence, though studies indicate it is the fishery with the lowest economic value.

How the commercial opening might affect the dipnetting is unclear. Indicators suggested that so many sockeye were headed toward the Kenai River that dipnetting by Saturday, when residents of Alaska's largest urban areas swarm the popular river, was likely to be good. And the biological concern is not with the reds but the fabled late-run Kenai kings.

As of Thursday, fewer than 4,000 of those fish had entered the river. That's far below the minimum spawning goal of 15,000. Based on the shape of the king run as it has developed to date, biologists project a total return of 13,000 fish but hope for more. The problem fisheries managers face is in trying to maximize the harvest on a large and healthy return of reds without killing kings in indiscriminate fishing gear.

An emergency order restricting the Kenai River rod-and-reel fishery to catch-and-release only king fishing appears imminent with a possible full closure of the river looming. The rod-and-reel king fishery supports a multimillion-dollar tourism industry on the Kenai, but fishing has been abysmal so far this year. The weak second run follows on the heels of a nonexistent early run of kings. That run was so weak the fishing season never opened.

"To put it in perspective, and illustrate how unhealthy our king runs presently are, I've guided full-time here for 25 years and know a thing or two about king fishing,'' guide Greg Brush said in an email earlier this week. "Yet this year, my guests and I have caught and released only six Kenai kings from 3 to 25 pounds, no less. Yes, I said 3 pounds. And yes, 25 pounds is our largest so far this year.

"Where are the world-famous giant kings of the Kenai? Virtually gone. So sad that it makes me physically ill.''

Like many other guides, Brush has been practicing voluntary catch-and-release fishing to help conserve the run. Fish and Game estimates that up to 8 percent of the released fish might die, but the guides point out that 92 percent survival is better than no survival and helps keep a key part of the tourism business afloat.

Anglers come from all over the world hoping to catch 50-pound and larger Kenai kings, though those fish are increasingly rare in a river where 60- and 70-pounders were once almost common. The world-record king salmon, a fish of 97 pounds, 4 ounces, came from the Kenai in 1985, but that was when the ocean was blessing the river with more of the big fish.

Both the size of the Kenai run and the size of the fish in the run have been falling for a decade now. Today's struggle is to get enough fish into the river to meet minimum spawning goals to try to ensure healthy runs in the future.

It is unclear how many of the approximately 450 commercial setnet permit holders who fish the beaches will go to the shallower nets, but many are expected to give the new plan a try in an effort avoid keep their catches up and avoid a potential closure of the fishery later in the season aimed at protecting the kings.

The setnetters lost almost all of their season in an effort to protect kings in 2012, and the income of about 450 Upper Cook Inlet setnet permits holders fell to $2 million -- a tenth of the $20 million they earned in 2011.

CORRECTION: This story was updated and corrected on July 21, 2014 to reflect that somewhere between 22,000 and 30,000 Alaskans fished their dipnet permits in 2013.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com