Kenai Peninsula setnetters are likely to remain closed for the rest of the season after the Board of Fisheries denied two emergency petitions seeking a partial reopening.
In an emergency meeting held Aug. 2, the Board of Fisheries voted 4-2 to deny a petition seeking a limited reopening of the East Side setnet fishery in Upper Cook Inlet. The petitioner, Chris Every, asked the board to reopen the East Side setnets within 600 feet of mean high tide, known as the 600-foot fishery.
“We believe by utilizing the 600-foot fishery we can reduce both the economic and biological impact while conserving chinook salmon, which is our ultimate goal with this 600-foot fishery,” he wrote in the petition.
The setnetters had a foreshortened and significantly restricted season because of low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 6,420 large kings have passed the sonar on the Kenai River since July 1, significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 large kings. In response, the department placed progressively stronger restrictions on the sportfishery, going from no bait to catch-and-release, and finally to a complete closure.
Because of the paired-restriction model the Board of Fisheries placed on the East Side setnetters, when the king salmon sportfishery is completely closed, they are too. Setnetters have not been in the water since July 20, and they have watched the peak weeks of the Kenai River sockeye run swim past. Aug. 2 saw the highest daily passage to date: 151,525 sockeye passed the sonar, according to ADFG.
Every cited harvest data from ADFG showing that when the entire East Side was open to the 600-foot nets only on July 20, only 11 late-run large Kenai River king salmon were harvested.
“We believe that the amount of kings that are impacted by the east set-net 600 foot fishery is equal to or less than the other user groups,” he wrote. “The total chinook harvest in each one of the 600-foot openers is very low.”
Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, one of the members who called for the emergency meeting after hearing from stakeholders, said those numbers were what convinced him the situation is an emergency.
“I may not have caught all this in public comment or deliberations,” he said. “That was obviously a very intense meeting with a lot of data.”
Board policy makes it hard to qualify something as an emergency. It must be an unforeseen effect of regulations, an immediate threat to the stock or include new information that the board or department did not have on hand when making regulations. The setnetters argue that the harvest data on large kings qualifies as new information, quantifying their exact impact on the run.
ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang issued a response to the petitions over the weekend, just before the board meeting took place, finding that the situation didn’t qualify as an emergency because it was not unforeseen nor new information. During the meeting, he said the board instructed the department to prioritize meeting the lower end of the late-run king salmon escapement goal over keeping the sockeye run within its escapement goal range.
The data from the 600-foot fishery on July 20 does show a small number of large Kenai River kings harvested compared to the approximately 36,000 sockeye harvested on the same day in the East Side setnet fishery, according to ADFG data. Vincent-Lang said that one day’s data may not be demonstrative of the effect of a 600-foot fishery long-term.
“That 11 (king salmon) harvest is indicative of that day of fishing, but it may not be indicative of what you can expect in the harvest in the 600-foot fishery that is prosecuted in the area depending upon when king salmon are passing and how big of a run you have going by that site,” he said.
Godfrey called the king harvest “de minimis” and said he felt he didn’t think he foresaw the full effect of the board’s actions on the setnet fishery while other fisheries remained open. Member John Wood agreed, saying he would like to see a temporary fix to allow the fishermen to harvest some of the sockeye run, but let the action expire after 120 days and consider permanent fixes in the future.
However, the other board members did not agree. Member John Jensen said he thought the situation was serious in allowing that many fish to go by, but agreed with Vincent-Lang’s finding. Member Israel Payton said he agreed as well and cautioned against risking king runs for the sake of harvesting sockeye.
“We don’t want to miss a goal more than three, four years in a row, because then it goes into stock of concern, and then we really have to take drastic measures,” Payton said. “My philosophy hasn’t changed that yes, my comfort level is more toward making a goal than exceeding a goal.”
The board voted 4-2 to deny the emergency petition. There was a second petition from Paul Shadura II, a south Kalifornsky Beach-area setnetter, asking for openings in the Kasilof section, in the 600-foot fishery, and in the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The board voted to take no action on the petition without any further specific discussion.
Shadura, who submitted the petition on behalf of the ad-hoc group the South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s Association, said he felt “slighted” that the board had not taken up the Kasilof petition. He said he felt the board didn’t discuss any of the serious underlying issues in the situation, including overescapement of sockeye into both impacting the future of the runs and the increased amount of large king salmon in the Kenai being unattainable.
“There’s a lot of discussion among folks,” he said. “We really have our doubts about the credibility of the escapement number. The target range for the kings in the Kenai River may at this current level exceed what was historically available in the first place.”
Shadura has been participating in the Board of Fisheries process for years and commented in the 2017 meeting, when the Kenai River king salmon goals were converted from all fish to large fish only, that it would result in more closures of the setnet fishery. He said this result is not surprising to him, though the results are devastating to the local economy. Most Kenai Peninsula setnetters live in Alaska.
“And to the processing industry, who’s really, from COVID … trying to survive in this situation with a reduction in harvest capacity,” he said. “All those fish that go up to the river are potential processing dollars that help the local community in multiple ways, and the national economy. It’s very, very shortsighted and the management system is not doing anything for the repair of our COVID economy.”
The setnetters can submit an agenda change request, or ACR, ahead of the board’s October work session to be included in the upcoming cycle of regular meetings, with the hope that board members will accept any proposal under ACR requirements. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Upper Cook Inlet cycle meeting, which is currently scheduled for 2024.
The Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet is currently harvesting sockeye headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and so far has harvested about 668,269 sockeye. Across the area, commercial fishermen have harvested about 1.2 million salmon total.
However, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association has also submitted an emergency petition to the Board of Fisheries, asking the board to suspend area restrictions during the first two weeks of August as well as the one percent rule.
The petition states that the request is to help control escapement, which is increasingly coming in after Aug. 1, and the sockeye escapement goals in both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been achieved.
ADFG is currently reviewing the petition.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.