"Fish come first" has been the essential foundation of Alaska's salmon management since statehood. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed this principle on Sept. 25, 2015, by rejecting a lawsuit from commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund vs. the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which asked for more fishing time even when it reduces spawning escapements below minimum goals established to protect future returns. This ruling is a significant win for all fishermen concerned with the sustainability of the state's salmon resource and for our Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The case focused on claims made during the 2013 fishing season by commercial setnet fishermen that the department "must" provide them with the amount of fishing time specified in the regulatory management plans for sockeye regardless of the impact on Kenai River late-run king salmon. Despite lower court decisions finding in favor of the department, the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund kept amending their claim, appealing, and then amending their appeal. Not only did the court reject the suit, the plaintiffs were required to pay the court costs – a clear sign of the court's regard for their arguments.
In July of 2012, the department faced a very difficult confluence of events. Historic low numbers of Kenai king salmon were showing up while sockeye salmon bound for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers were abundant. These two species run together along the beaches of Upper Cook Inlet and are harvested together in the east-side commercial setnet fishery. The department used its Emergency Order Authority to close both the setnet fishery and the Kenai king sport fishery in order to achieve the minimum escapement goal for kings, but the cost was a significant loss of fishing opportunity for all groups.
In the fall of 2012, the department announced a forecast for another season of historic low abundance of kings and abundant sockeye in 2013. In an attempt to make the most of a tough situation, that fall the Alaska Board of Fisheries created a task force in an effort to identify strategies for managing the mixed species fisheries during periods of low abundance of king salmon. The task force met throughout the winter of 2012-13 and identified a list of potential management options in a report to the Board during a special meeting in March 2013. However, the task force was unable to come to a consensus on a single "best" recommendation. The board, rather than putting anything new into regulation, basically told the department to use the existing regulations as a framework, look carefully at the list of potential management options developed by the task force, and use its Emergency Order Authority to manage this tough situation as best they could.
As forecast, the department managers faced another small run of late-run kings and large runs of sockeye in 2013. The actions it took included restrictions in the sport fishery in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, prohibition of retention of king salmon in the personal-use fisheries, placing a limit on the number of fishing hours in the commercial setnet fishery and increasing the fishing time and area allowed in the commercial drift gillnet fishery. The increase in fishing time for the drift fleet was justified by the fact that the drift fishery harvests less than 10 percent of the number of late-run kings as the setnet fishery.
In spite of the complexity of management, at season's end the minimum escapement goal for Kenai kings, 15,000, was barely met with the estimate coming in at 15,400 fish. The escapement of Kenai sockeye was smack in the middle of the escapement goal range and in the Kasilof the escapement of sockeye exceeded the upper end of the goal range by 100,000. The Board of Fisheries followed up in March 2014 by adopting many if not most of the strategies used by the department in 2013 into the regulatory management plans that now guide Upper Cook Inlet.
Managing the salmon fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet has never been an easy task; however, instructing the department that it "must" give any fishing group access to the resource regardless of the effect that access might have on the department's ability to achieve minimum escapement goals would be a tragic mistake. Clearly, the justices of the Alaska Supreme Court agree.
Kevin Delaney is a former director of the Division of Sport Fish in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is a fisheries consultant with Kenai River Sportfishing Association.