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Kenai River dust-up: Managers sacrificing kings for sockeyes?

Craig Medred

Greed has trumped conservation on the Kenai River, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) charged Saturday as the return of prized, late-run king salmon was projected to fall below spawning needs and commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet again put their nets in the water. The netters, who have already enjoyed a season far better than projected, are after sockeye salmon -- not kings -- but everyone agrees some of kings will be caught and killed anyway.

Such is the nature of what are called mixed stock fisheries.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and her staff contend the commercial fishermen need to catch the sockeyes to prevent too many of those fish from reaching their Kenai spawning grounds and messing up future runs. This presumption that what is called "over-escapement'' could hurt future runs is broadly questioned by some scientists, including some within Fish and Game. Ray Beamesderfer,  the former chief scientist and editor for the Lower Columbia River Salmon Recovery and Fish and Wildlife Subbasin Plan, and now a consultant at Cramer Fish Sciences, earlier this summer said the assumption that too many fish in the river will create problems is a scientific theory that "somehow morphed into a pseudo-biological justification for maximizing commercial fishery harvest and allocation."

Anyone with questions about the validity of over-escapement, he added, need only examine what has happened this year. Because large numbers of adult sockeyes escaped commercial, personal-use and sport fishermen to spawn in the middle of the decade, state fisheries managers forecast a mediocre return of less than 4 million sockeye to the Kenai this summer. It now appears that about 7 million came back.

"Five years ago, this year's big Kenai sockeye return was just about the last thing many people were predicting.'' Beamesderfer noted. "Three straight years of large spawning escapements from 2004 to 2006 led to warnings of a pending run collapse due to 'over-escapement.'"

Needless to say, it didn't happen. Fisheries biologists saw the opposite. But Beamesderfer's conclusions have been given short shrift because he was hired by the KRSA as a consultant. Kevin Delaney, a former Alaska director of sport fisheries and another consultant to the Association, said that shouldn't be. If the issue was only about catching sockeyes, he said, the sport-fishing organization wouldn't have a complaint. KRSA is happy to see commercial fishermen have a good season, he said.

The problem now, however, is that Fish and Game appears to have decided to sacrifice one run of fish -- the prized Kenai kings -- to catch a lot of another -- those sockeyes, he said.

Anglers, who ended their king season in July and who fished through the end of it under fishing restrictions that made it hard to catch a fish, are outraged by that sort of thinking. For the first time ever, KRSA director Ricky Gease charged Saturday, the state is going fail to meet the spawning goal of 17,800 late-run Kenai kings. The late-run Kenai fish are the biggest and most prized king salmon in the world. The sport fishing association's angry board of directors, he added, has "unanimously approved a vote of no confidence in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Cora Campbell and fishery division directors."

Gease said the state, which is responsible for managing all fisheries, should at the moment be worrying more about how to meet conservation needs of late-run kings than about how to produce maximum profits for commercial set and drift gillnetters fishermen. Campbell could not be reached for comment Saturday. There was only a recording on the phone at the commissioner's office.

A state fish-counting sonar on the river has to date registered more than 32,000 of the late-run kings into the river, but everyone agrees that number is bogus. The sonar has difficulty sorting the kings from the sockeyes, so Fish and Game also runs a net fishery to capture kings and sockeyes. Data collected there are used to try to devise a correction factor for the sonar number. Fish and Game's official king estimate at the moment is 17,622, which is just below the goal. But the state number remains far from firm. Kenai sport fishing said its biologists believe the actual, final estimate could fall as low as 11,000 or 12,000 -- a conservation disaster. And Fish and Game doesn't seem to care.

"At the expense of kings, the department is going full speed to harvest the tail end of the sockeye run," KRSA board chairman Eldon Mulder said in a prepared statement. "It is a sad day when we see the department of Fish and Game prioritize greed over conservation. When that happens, it is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about fishery conservation.''

The latest dust up in the Alaska fishing business comes at a time when the commercial fishery has been rocked by revelations that Arne Fugolvog, a once-powerful aide to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is about to accept a federal plea deal that will send him to jail for 10 months for outlaw fishing in the past. Fuglvog at one time appeared to be on the verge of taking over the the directorship of the National Marine Fisheries Service. An outlaw fishermen who fattened his wallet with illegal catches, Fuglvog would have become the federal fish czar.

Fuglvog came close to landing the job at the head of NMFS despite a lack of training in fisheries science. He entered the fishery management arena after the state appointed him to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The council sets the rules for halibut, sablefish and other fisheries in the marine waters off Alaska's coasts. Federal prosecutors now say that while a member of the regulation-setting council busy preaching fisheries conservation and the benefits to the resource of limited entry, Fuglvog was regularly abusing the rules to increase his personal profits.

The political springboard from which Fuglvog launched into fisheries management was the politically powerful Petersburg Vessel Owners Association. Campbell, the Alaska Fish and Game commissioner, came to her job from the same association and, like Fuglvog, she lacks training in scientific resource management but is widely praised for being a quick learner. She has a bachelor's degree in education.

Some contend putting people primarily experienced in running non-governmental organizations -- commonly called NGOs -- in charge of the scientific organizations that manage resources makes those organizations more responsive to the public. The question the Kenai Sport Fishing Association was asking on Saturday was "responsive to whom?"

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.