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Sowing the seeds of 'fish war' perpetuates division, stifles solutions in Cook Inlet

Arni Thomson
OPINION: Scapegoating commercial salmon fishermen in Cook Inlet serves to emphasize old battle lines and, worst of all, it delays the urgent task of rebuilding fish stocks. Pictured: Fishermen stand at the mouth of the Kenai River on opening day of the personal-use salmon dipnetting season. July 10, 2014 Bill Roth

Celebrating the return of the salmon to Cook Inlet rivers is a yearly ritual for most of us -- the reaping of yet another of Alaska’s god-given resources. This spirit is what unites us as Alaskans. Unfortunately, though, some have used the allocation of this abundant resource as a platform for division.

About a year ago the Alaska Salmon Alliance authored an op-ed on these pages that touted our uniqueness in engaging fellow Alaskans in the Mat-Su and Anchorage in an effort to start a meaningful dialogue with sport, personal use, subsistence and commercial user groups on common research themes, promotion of wild stock enhancement in Mat-Su rivers and streams, and to negotiate long term science-based management solutions for the betterment of all Alaskans.

This leads into a few much needed clarifications about aspects of Kenai River sport and personal use salmon fisheries that we all should know. The ASA recognizes these fisheries are as much a part of the culture of Southcentral Alaska as commercial fishing.

When the drift fleet fishes 12 hours district-wide without any closed areas, most of the drifters fish south of Kalgan Island, where abundance is normally the highest. Fish they catch there take two to four days to reach the Kenai River mouth. The entry pattern of sockeye salmon to the Kenai is highly variable from year to year, and last year they came to the beach on Monday, July 15, not the weekend as they had in 2010, 2011 and 2012. There is nothing ADFG can do to alter the entry pattern for the peak of the run. Last year, by the following weekend, the peak was over.

This brings us to the next point. With 500 boats dipnetting, a thousand nets are in the water at any time from July 10 through 31. The shore-based fishery brings another 4,000 nets into the mouth of the river. The total harvest in 2012 was 526,000 fish, a whopping 139 percent increase since 2009.

The dipnet fishery takes about 33 percent of what comes in the river, so that means 300,000 fish (the upper end) to enter the river to satisfy just 5,000 permits. But wait, there are 34,000 permits issued. Not all permits fish. However, there is no way one can provide for this fishery and the expectations of the participants. If you limit the commercial fishery in an attempt to provide more fish for a primarily weekend fishery, Mother Nature will show you like last year that she has more tricks than fishermen.

This brings us to a second underestimated in-river user group, the guided and non-guided sportfishery that has a significant effect on king salmon abundance and productivity.

The sportfishery for king salmon in the Kenai River has almost exclusively occurred between Mud Island (RM 9) and Sunken Island (below Slikok Creek at RM 19), a narrow 10-mile band of easily accessible and slow moving river. ADFG Sportfish Survey catch reports for this area below the Soldotna Bridge show for the most recent report year, 2012, that 52,000 non-guided and commercially guided anglers spent 147,000 angler days primarily fishing this stretch of river for a total catch of 833 chinook salmon. In 2011, 57,000 anglers spent 159,000 angler days fishing and caught 8,769 king salmon.

Looking back to 2008, the most recent five-year period, catch and effort figures vary but are similar to 2011. A very recent ADFG report (2A13-206) presented to the Board of Fisheries in February identified this primary sportfishing zone as the most important spawning conservation area in the river, yet there are no closed or restricted areas below Slikok Creek (RM 18.5). Virtually all spawning closure areas are above Slikok, where they only provide minimal protection to spawning kings. As for East Side Set Net setnetters, it is noteworthy they have harvested an average of 5,914 kings in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Fully half of these were 29.5 inches (750 mm) in length or under, the size of a large sockeye, and of little interest to sportfishermen. (ADFG No. 13-63)

Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen who fund the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association have been contributing to salmon restoration programs for more than 15 years in the Mat-Su valley area in hopes of bridging with the residents. There are mounting costs for Mat-Su and Anchorage residents that accompany delay of restoration of fisheries-based tourism and home-based fishing for local residents. Political strategies focused on scapegoating Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen only serve to perpetuate the so-called Cook Inlet fish war and delay rebuilding of Mat-Su stocks.

Arni Thomson is the executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance, an industry group founded in 2011 with a main goal of protecting Cook Inlet fishing resources for the long term and for all user groups. Its membership includes fishermen, fishing organizations and the Inlet's major processors.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.