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Teeth gnashing follows Cook Inlet fisheries disaster declaration

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

There was no question fishing in Cook Inlet would be poor this year, but whether it would actually cause Alaskans serious financial grief was uncertain.

As summer winds down and final fish counts begin to emerge, numbers are starting to paint a picture of what could have been for fishing in upper Cook Inlet, home to one of the state's most hotly contested fisheries. 

The closures have been so economically disruptive that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is now urging U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank to declare a fisheries disaster for the region. It's his second request for federal fishery disaster funds this summer, following up the earlier king crash on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

With the valuable Kenai River king salmon stocks looking dangerously low this summer, Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers had to pull back on certain fishermen. First came anglers, who were all but banned from the river in an effort to conserve the king run. Next came set netters, who remained beached along the inlet's Southcentral Alaska shores for fear their sockeye salmon nets might catch a few of the precious kings heading up river.

No fishermen in the Cook Inlet region have exactly come out on top. Set netters watched in anguish as more than a million sockeye salmon swam past. Sport fishing guides had to send clients elsewhere. Even the commercial drift net fleet, which is highly movable and thus able to fish in a way that minimizes harvest of kings, isn't smiling despite the largest fish haul they've had in 10 years. Their worry? Fear of an over abundance of sockeyes.

What the final economic impact will be remains unknown, but it looks grim. Even if the federal government declares a disaster under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, when federal funds arrive in Alaska is unclear. According to the governor's office, a federal disaster declaration will not bring automatic assistance to the region as a federal appropriation is necessary to provide funding. 

With winter coming, fishing-dependent residents of the Kenai Peninsula are concerned. The region deals with serious unemployment during the winter even during good times. With less money pumped into the economy and people looking for jobs, things are looking bad.

“This is tough,” Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association Board Director Paul A. Shadura said. “People don't have an alternative to redirect their life.”

Sport fishing blow

Guide Dave Goggia, owner of Hooky Charters and president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said his business is down about 50 percent this year. He estimates that most guides are down about half. Goggia said he and many guides will have to take on extra jobs to make up for the loss. But one thing he can't figure out is how the guides will deal with coming years. One bad year can have a ripple affect. Visiting king salmon anglers might not want to invest their time and money on a pursuit with so many what-ifs.

“We're going to have to rethink the way we do business,” he said.

Someone staying a week on the Kenai to fish can spend about $5,000, according to Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease. He said those people, coming to the area to use sport fishing guides, anchor an $800 million industry. 

Not only fishermen will be affected. Restaurants, lodging and other businesses may also be in trouble.

“You remove that from the economy and you start to see the ripples of that going through the economy,” he said. “That will be a huge, significant impact.”

No good news for commercial fishermen

On paper, the catch for the Northern District drift net fleet looks good. This year, the drifters harvested a total of 3.54 million fish. Of that, 2.9 million were valuable sockeye salmon -- and only 191 precious kings were caught.

But, commericial fishermen say there's more to it. The number of sockeyes that escaped their nets to reach the Kenai more than exceeded the upper limit of the escapement goal. That's not good, commercial fishermen contend, because too many fish going into the river can mean weaker returns down the line. When escapements are too big, fisheries biologists say, the return per spawner rate drops and the fishery operates with less economic efficiency.

But the issue is much debated because packing the river with salmon also improves the sport fishing, and anglers are quick to point out that while an over-stuffed Kenai might mean a lower rate of returning fish per spawner in future years, there is no evidence it actually reduces the run size.

More than 1.5 million sockeyes made it into the Kenai. The upper limit on the escapement, or spawning, goal is 1.2 million. The reason for the big escapement was simple. Unlike in the past, the drift fleet and set netters couldn’t work in unison to harvest sockeyes. With the set netters shut down to protect kings, it was left to the drift netters to catch the fish. They couldn't get them all, and many fish made it up the Kenai. 

Fish and Game tried to slow the flow by allowing a personal-use dipnet fishery to scoop up salmon around the clock, but that didn't help much and the agency was unwilling to go so far as to extend that fishery beyond its July 31 closing date. Commericial fishermen say they are now worried about the number of fish in the river.

“You'll have a regression for the stock to collapse. It's not a big enough nursery,” Shadura said. Worries about the future problems only add to frustrations lingering from the way the commericial fishery was prosecuted in August.

Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association President David Martin has been fishing in the area for 42 years. With so many fish being harvested by the drift fleet, there was a glut -- and quality becomes a concern. Boats can't drain the fish fast enough, and there may not be enough ice on board. Processors get backed up as they race through fish being delivered to their doorstep.

All of that tends to force prices down.  Martin said the price of his fish dropped 25 to 30 cents a pound this year. That happened last year, too, when the drift fleet was fished hard during periods of low king returns, he said. Martin thinks there should be more order in fishing the runs. Instead of using the drift fleet to catch more fish late in the season, he said, the state should fish the run earlier.

'Almost criminal'

“It's almost criminal that's happening that way,” he said.  “It could be prevented,” he said.

State biologists counter they're reluctant to start fishing Cook Inlet sockeye hard until they get a good idea how many are coming back. A relatively weak run was forecast for this year, which led biologists to ease into the season rather than charge.

All of it has left almost everyone unhappy.

No matter where fishermen fall on the political spectrum, they all seem to agree that the Board of Fish needs to make serious changes. Martin and Shadura both said the board needs to look at fishing for biology versus allocation. 

Until then, they'll just deal with the impacts. Shadura said some set netters have already filed for bankruptcy. He's worried that without aid soon, social agencies in the state will be plagued with problems -- domestic violence, food security and the like.

“(Commercial fishermen) don't really know what to do,” Shadura said. “The state has disregarded their worth in the community as a whole. We don't know what the future is going to be.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com.  Reporter Craig Medred contributed to this account.

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