For fishermen who live and work in Alaska's northern Cook Inlet, times have been rough. Cindi Herman and Mark Torkelson own the Skwentna Roadhouse, an Iditarod Trail checkpoint located on the Skwentna River, accessible by only boat and plane in the summer. This season they had to cancel 160 bookings because of restrictions placed on the river in an effort to protect salmon heading upriver.
If not for a good winter season and Torkelson taking a job at an auto body shop in Wasilla, the couple might have had to close the roadhouse.
Angry over the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's management of salmon stocks, Torkelson and other northern Cook Inlet fishermen showed up en masse at a meeting with state officials Wednesday seeking answers that seldom emerged.
About 200 people arrived for the gathering at Willow Island Resort in Willow, a small community of about 1,500 located about 75 miles from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Poor fishing has hurt the resort this season. Fishing for king and silver salmon was shut down or limited at various times this summer.
Kenai River sockeyes the priority?
Many at the meeting were outraged because, they said, Fish and Game put a higher priority on harvesting Kenai River sockeye salmon than achieving minimum escapement goals for fish bound for Mat-Su rivers and streams.
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, asked Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and her staff to attend a public meeting to address fishermen’s concerns.
The meeting was yet another focused on the disastrous 2012 fishing season in upper Cook Inlet, a season so bad Gov. Sean Parnell recently asked U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank to declare a federal disaster in the region because of weak king salmon runs.
Kenai commercial and sport fishermen were hit particularly hard, with east-side set netters beached for most of the season as millions of sockeye salmon -- the commercial fishermen’s prized catch -- swam into the Kenai. Sport fishing operations in both the Mat-Su and Kenai didn’t do much better.
In an effort to catch more of the fish, the commercial drift net fleet was allowed to fish heavily, and the sockeye catch ended up totaling 2.8 million fish. One reason is that the drift fleet is easier to move and less likely to catch any of the precious kings bound for Kenai River spawning grounds.
72,000 silver salmon caught
However, the fleet ended up catching more than 72,000 coho salmon in upper Cook Inlet this season, the third lowest since 2002. At the same time, both the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers, typically two of the area’s biggest producers, had miserable coho returns, a combined 12,800 fish passing fish weirs spanning the rivers. Neither waterway will come close to its escapement goal, the number of fish biologists hope to see surviving to spawn to ensure strong runs in the future.
This will be the fourth consecutive year the Little Su will come up short, meaning that the Board of Fish could label Little Su silvers a stock of concern, triggering greater protections.
Neuman said fishing in the Mat-Su is a $100-million-a-year industry. Many who testified talked about the financial hardship they now face. Some are taking second jobs, applying for loans or filing for bankruptcy.
Andy Couch, owner of Fish Tale River Guides, was upset over the lack of answers from Fish and Game officials. He said there were multiple times in the meeting when Campbell and other fisheries managers, including Jeff Regnart, division director of commercial fisheries, were silent in the face of questions.
“They knew what the concerns were,” Couch said. “They should have had something to tell the people about what they would attempt to do to help.”
Fish and Game questioned
Neuman, too, said many wondered why there weren't more answers.
“For whatever reason (the fish) are not coming,” he said. “People are wondering, 'Hey, (Fish and Game) you're not doing your job. It's your job to make sure the fish are coming here and they're not coming. But answers aren't real solid sometimes,” he said.
Neuman said another meeting with Fish and Game is scheduled for mid-October, once the final numbers on escapement are compiled.
Herman, of the Skwentna Roadhouse, supports conserving fish. But at what cost to businesses?
“This year we just depended on those bookings, and when they fell through it was pretty devastating,” she said. “Now were just picking up the pieces.
“We gotta reach down deep. This is our dream and this is where we want to be.”
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com
CORRECTION: The description of the silver salmon haul by the Cook Inlet commercial drift fleet was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. It was the third-lowest haul since 2002, not the second highest.