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What's a commissioner to do with these lopsided salmon runs?

Craig Medred

Unexpectedly large numbers of sockeye salmon continued to pour into the Kenai River Friday even as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game ramped up commercial harvests in Cook Inlet to try to cut them off.

By Friday, commercial fishermen had caught a total of 3.6 million sockeye for the month. When the year began, the run was projected to total only 3.9 million. But with 3.6 million caught and another 800,000 up the river, fisheries managers know for a fact they are now well above the projection. The latest guess is that the blessing from the ocean might well number 6 or 7 million when all is said and done.

Better ocean survival is credited for the massive return. The why is unknown.

And nature has not smiled equally on all of the salmon. Runs of king salmon -- the Kenai fish most prized by anglers -- and coho salmon both appear weak. Fish and Game ordered a ban on bait in the king salmon fishery starting Monday try to reduce the sport catch of kings, and announced a king salmon restriction for personal-use dipnetters near the river's mouth. Starting at a minute after midnight Sunday, dipnetters will be required to release unharmed any kings that happen to get in their nets.

In the wake of all of this, the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association is talking about a "perfect storm" of salmon returns destined to undercut the river's king and coho fisheries, and possibly play havoc with Susitna River sockeye and coho runs to the north of Kenai. Susitna bound fish often mix with Kenai fish, making the former vulnerable to overharvest in commercial fisheries trying to target the more abundant Kenai sockeye.

The storm, said Kevin Delaney, a fisheries biologist for the sport-fishing association, "is comprised of a dangerously low return of late-run king salmon bound back to the Kenai River, unknown abundance of Susitna sockeye salmon, unknown abundance of coho and a very large return of sockeye salmon bound back to the Kenai River."

A salmon management plan hammered out by the state Board of Fisheries is designed to maximize the harvest of sockeye salmon when monster runs materialize. If biologists project a return of more than 4.6 million -- which is now the case -- they are required, as Delaney put it, "to 'cry havoc' and go all out to stop the run from entering the river. That means both the Tuesday and Friday "windows" -- closures of the (commercial) set-net fishery to allow fish to enter the Kenai River -- go away and killing the last sockeye trumps any effort to put kings and cohos into the river."

With the world-famous late-run of Kenai kings appearing to be already tapering off and coho rare, Delaney expected anglers could end up paying the conservation costs. He is expecting further in-river restrictions on king and coho anglers to try to protect the fish that do make it past the gauntlets of commercial nets in the Inlet.

That's the bad news for anglers. The good news is that there are a lot of sockeyes in the river, and the fishing for them is in places phenomenal. So, too, the dipnetting if one gets the timing right. The emergency openings in the commercial fisheries have been making that harder, and some dipnetters are angry at Fish and Game because of it.

Helen McNeil, a 57-year-old Anchorage woman who said she has undergone nine knee surgeries, said she and her grandson were unable to catch a single fish in their dipnet at the mouth of the river Wednesday, and she didn't see other dipnetters doing much better. Hundreds of people were on the beach at the time, and "we saw six (fish) that were caught," McNeil said.

But that wasn't what upset McNeil. What upset her was that when she picked up a personal-use dipnet permit at the Anchorage Fish and Game office Wednesday, which all dipnetters are required to do, she asked about the potential for so-called "emergency openings" in the commercially fishery. She was told none were scheduled, she said. She asked about this, she added, because "the commercial boats are not normally out on a Wednesday."

Confident that the commercial fishery was closed and dipnetting would be good, McNeil said, "I spent all of my 'extra money' to go down. I do not have one fish ... The state Fish and Game is creating a winter of hunger for many people by their poor management and lack of effective
communication."

The winter of hunger, she later added, might be an overstatement, but it would help everyone if Fish and Game would do a better job of trying to keep average Alaskans informed of what is happening with commercial fisheries in the Inlet. The Kenai dipnet fishery, McNeil noted, is very much a meat fishery, and it is used heavily by people looking to put up a supply of salmon for the winter. Significant numbers of those people live on low or fixed incomes. They can't afford to be making a lot of extra trips to Kenai, she said.

"It was $130 to fill the gas tank up just to go," McNeil said.

She got to the river just about the time commercial nets went into the water just offshore from the river mouth. "That stopped everything," she said. "The people who were there in the morning got their limit in a couple hours." And upstream from the mouth, the dipnetters in a boat fishery were still doing well, but "I don't have a boat," McNeil said. "Most of the people I know don't have a boat."

Thus she joined the mob fishing from the shore along the north beach below the city of Kenai. "The beach was full of people fully expecting to feed their family for the year," she said. Most of them didn't get a single fish, and some nearly got washed away.

"The commercial boats were speeding in and out of the river so fast they created 7- to 10-foot waves onshore," McNeil said. "I saw eight people get swamped  while standing in knee deep water (after) the boat went by. The first guy that got swamped was like 6-foot-1. He was a Hawaiian guy."

The man was swept off his feet and was being carried out to sea by the current when his brother grabbed him, she said. One dipnetter has already died after being swept downriver this year.

Some commercial fishermen who use the river to gain access to fish processing plants don't like the dipnetters and try to make their wakes as big as possible, though 7- to 10-feet is an exaggeration. No Cook Inlet fishing boats are capable of generating a wave that tall in the mouth of the Kenai.

Some of the dipnetters don't much like the commercial fishermen either. The two groups, along with anglers, have been locked in a long-running battle over Cook Inlet salmon allocation. And more fish, it appears, doesn't seem to make any side friendlier to the other. They are unhappy with each other now with sockeye back in force, and it could get worse.

"If the (Kenai) king salmon run tails off at a rate worse than currently anticipated then things get really interesting," Delaney noted. "If sport fish managers (conclude) that the final spawning number of kings salmon will be less than 17,800 fish, then they are obligated by the management plan to close the sport fishery completely, and commercial fish managers are instructed to close the set-net fishery at the same time."

A problem like that could make life awfully interesting for Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, who would then be forced to decide between competing salmon management plans: A sport-fish division king salmon plan designed to shut down commercial set-net fisheries to
preserve kings, or a commercial-fisheries division sockeye plan designed to prosecute both set-net and drift gillnet fisheries aggressively to prevent more than 1.2 million sockeyes from getting into the river.

The upper limit of spawning goals for sockeye is 1.2 million fish. The lower limit is 700,000. It was passed Wednesday at a point usually about halfway through the run.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com