In the second emergency meeting in a week, the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted down several petitions Wednesday that would have limited the commercial fishing fleet in Cook Inlet.
The board rejected a bid to limit drift netters in an effort to protect the Northern District-bound salmon. It also denied a request to shut down set netters on the east side of Cook Inlet for the first two weeks of August to conserve king salmon headed for the Kenai River.
It was the second time in a week the board met out of session to address abysmal Cook Inlet king runs. New to the discussion was the question of how to protect the Northern District (the Matanuska-Susitna area north of Alaska's largest city) salmon stocks, some of which have also seen bleak returns recently.
In a July 26 meeting, the board voted 5-2 to not allow east-side set netters the opportunity to fish through the remainder of the first management period, which ended Wednesday. At that meeting, board members said it would be improper for the board to step in and address a situation that should be handled by Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, a concern echoed Wednesday.
Northern district bound salmon
Of the four petitions considered, three focused on the effects the commercial drift net fleet is having on salmon returning to Mat-Su waterways.
Part of the management plan for the region adopted by the board calls for using the drift-net fleet more extensively to harvest sockeyes while conserving king salmon. The drift net fishery collects fish away from shore, unlike the set-net fishery. King salmon often swim closer to the shore, where set netters sometimes scoop them up while fishing for more-abundant sockeyes. This year, about 4 million sockeyes are expected to return to the Kenai River.
But as the drift nets are pushed farther into the inlet, do they scoop up other fish, too?
For the past three years, the Little Susitna River has missed its silver salmon escapement goal of 10,000 fish. If it misses again this year, the stock will be considered a "stock of concern," launching conservation measures. Yentna River sockeye salmon are already considered one of six "stocks of concern" across the state.
Mat-Su's two biggest silver salmon runs -- just cranking up this season -- have both seen precipitous declines recently, reaching a low ebb last year:
- The Little Su is down 74 percent in three years to just 4,826 silvers counted last year.
- The Deshka River is down 73 percent in two years to 7,508 silvers passing the weir last year.
Almost 60,000 silvers have been caught so far this year by commercial drift netters in Cook Inlet.
Petitioners asked why making minimum-escapement goals in one area takes priority over other locales. In essence, they argue, if too many of the dwindling stock of silver salmon are caught before spawing, will that place an undue burden on Mat-Su anglers?
The board said an emergency order this late in the season would not make much difference, and voted the petition down unanimously.
"If we had received this petition a month ago, there's no question about voting for an emergency," said board member Bill Brown, owner of Taku Reel Repair in Juneau.
Conserving the silver stock is an issue more appropriate for the board's next meeting on Cook Inlet in 2013 or 2014.
More set net restrictions?
About 20 percent of late-run king salmon run are expected to head up the Kenai River during the first 12 days of August.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association submitted a petition last week asking the board to consider extending the late run Kenai River king salmon management plan. The plan, which expired July 31, shut down the east side set net fishery to preserve kings.
Kings caught in any August set net openings could negate gains made by closing the in-river king sport fishery and the commercial set-net fishery during July.
Much of Wednesday's back and forth between board members and biologists centered on numbers, including the average number of kings caught in the late run (172, according to commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields) and whether the kings are being accurately counted.
Ultimately, the petition failed, with the board splitting 3-3. Typically, that would mean that Cook Inlet set netters get to fish during established periods over the first 12 days of August, with more time available if the department allows. But on Wednesday afternoon, an emergency order from Fish and Game closed a set-net fishing period that was scheduled for Thursday.
Board chair Karl Johnstone said any opening of the set net fishery would put the burden of conserving Kenai River kings directly on Fish and Game.
Johnstone reiterated that the board should lean toward conservation when there are competing interests, Johnstone said. At the same time, he said he sympathized with commercial fishermen prevented from fishing.
"The mantra is fish come first, not the fishermen," he said.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com