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Cook Inlet opening for set netters sets off a Kenai king firestorm

Mike Campbell

For just the second time this summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Monday allowed set netters working the east side of Upper Cook Inlet to put their nets in the water, citing an improving return of king salmon to the Kenai River.

“We were able to allow a regular period for the set-net fishery knowing we were going to catch some small amount of kings,” Pat Shields, area biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game, told the Peninsula Clarion. “There are enough kings now on the river that we felt comfortable with a little potential harvest.”

But not everyone is happy.

“Without a demonstrable harvestable surplus of Kenai kings, the opening of the commercial set net fishery is inconsistent with (Fish and Game’s) fishery management plans and contrary to king salmon conservation measures required by this year’s record low return,” Ricky Gease, executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association, wrote in a blog post.

So is there a surplus?  Fish and Game’s DIDSON sonar estimate on Sunday showed that 15,485 kings had passed the sonar 8.6 miles upstream from the mouth of the Kenai River. That’s still about 2,000 kings short of Fish and Game’s minimum escapement goal for the Kenai.

“Typically, 95 percent of the run is completed at this time,” state sport fishing regional biologist Robert Begich wrote on the Fish and Game website.  “However, in 2012, about 18 percent of the run entered the river since July 31.” state sport fishing biologist Robert Begich wrote on the Fish and Game website. “Since July 25, daily king salmon passage has ranged from 489 fish to 878 fish and is continuing.” Consequently, Fish and Game is projecting that this year’s king salmon escapement will end up bigger than either of the last two years.

At the same date last year, 19,281 kings had passed the sonar.  In 2010, 17,248 had. Fish and Game points out that the number of fish counted by the sonar isn’t an escapement estimate. “Most of the harvest within the Kenai River occurs upstream of the sonar site,” Begich noted.

Sport fishing for Kenai king salmon remains closed.

Shields told the Clarion that set netters may get another opening to fish for red salmon on  Thursday. “We’re going to look at it day by day,” he said. “We’ll look at the harvest numbers, but primarily we will be looking at king numbers.”

Gease questions Fish and Game’s analysis that the numbers project to achieving the mininum escapement goal.

“Without a demonstrable harvestable surplus of Kenai kings, the opening of the commercial set net fishery is . . . contrary to king salmon conservation measures required by this year’s record low return,” he wrote.  “Fish and Game obviously believes the minimum escapement goal of 17,800 ... has or will be achieved.”

Since state biologists clearly assume the minimum king salmon escapement goal will be met, Gease wonders why all their actions don’t demonstrate that assurance?

“If Fish and Game is 100 percent confident that the minimum escapement goal has been achieved for late-run Kenai River king salmon, why is the no-bait restriction still in place for the Kenai River silver salmon sport fishery?” Gease wrote.  “Does it make sense to continue a no-bait restriction that will save less than 20 king salmon in-river . . .  when at the same time the commercial set net fishery will be harvesting many hundreds of Kenai kings per opener?”