The Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting has finished in Anchorage with a new plan for commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and commercial fishermen are angry.
The board settled on a scheme to permit commercial driftnetters to fish more in the lower Inlet near Homer while restricting them in the waters off Kenai farther north. The hope is the plan will allow the driftnetters to catch just as many Kenai Peninsula sockeye salmon as in the past, but with a bycatch of fewer of the struggling silver and sockeye salmon bound for the Susitna River drainage.
Along with that action, the board developed a plan to allow commercial setnetters to experiment with new, shallower nets to see if they can minimize their bycatch of king salmon if there is a weak return of late-run Kenai kings as expected. The intent is to try to figure out a way to allow the setnetters to catch as many, or more, sockeye than they've landed in the past while reducing their catch of kings.
Sockeye are the Inlet's money fish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expecting a catch of more than 4 million this summer. The approximately 1,300 holders of coveted permits to commercially fish Cook Inlet salmon harvested about 4 million of all salmon species last year and pocketed $34.2 million for the effort, according to state figures.
But board efforts to keep the sockeye catch high while adding protection for other species of salmon, and tossing a few kings and silvers in the direction of anglers, did not sit well.
The Alaska Salmon Alliance, a commercial fishing group, released a statement Friday blasting both board actions and the board process.
"With no vetting process for (regulation) measures and some 250 items to sort through, the process is doomed to fail," charged Alaska Salmon Alliance Executive Director Arni Thompson. "Moreover, we have witnessed the commercial fleet take a heavily disproportionate hit compared to other user groups."
The state board process allows any citizen to submit a proposal for regulatory change. It is among the most wide-open public processes in the country. Many, if not most, of the 250 proposals put to the board for changes in Cook Inlet fisheries this year came from commercial fishermen or commercial fishing interests.
A consultant for a sportfishing interest group, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, counted almost 50 proposals from just one commercial fishing organization.
And some of the commercial proposals seemed aimed more at punishing other fishermen than at conserving fish. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the commercial driftnetters' lobby and traditionally one of the most powerful players in Cook Inlet fisheries politics, proposed the board cut salmon limits in the personal use dipnet fishery by half and ban dipnetting from boats -- the most efficient way to catch fish.
This despite a bad season for dipnetters. Their 2013 harvest dropped from more than 500,000 fish per year to fewer than 350,000 in a demonstration of just how much the dipnet fishery is subject to the whims of salmon.
Although about 35,000 Alaskans grab free, resident-only permits to dipnet, and more than 27,000 of these people show up at the mouth of the Kenai in July, the dipnetters are more of a spectacle than a conservation concern. They have been shown to be pretty inefficient fishermen.
With the fishery open only for the month of July -- and closed during nighttime hours -- it's not much of a threat to the fish. Dipnetters do well if a big surge of sockeyes into the river coincides with when they are allowed to fish; otherwise they don't do so well. The latter happened this past summer, and there was a lot of whining about empty nets and empty freezers. The board decided not to set off more of that by messing with dipnet limits.
Pretty much the same happened in regards to the hook-and-line king salmon fishery in the Kenai River itself, a fishery that helps support many tourism businesses on the Peninsula. That fishery is already tightly regulated, but commercial fishermen wanted it cut back further, arguing that anglers are harming salmon by fishing "on the spawning beds."
"By largely ignoring in-river habitat measures," Thomson charged in the Alliance statement, "the Board has marginally increased the in-river experience at the long-term expense of Kenai sockeye populations -- a fish rightfully enjoyed by the commercial, personal use and in-river sectors."
What exactly Thomson was talking about is unclear.
Some Kenai kings do spawn in the section of the river where motorboat traffic is allowed and could be disturbed by fishermen, but Kenai sockeyes spawn in tributaries to Skilak and Kenai lakes, the Kenai River above Skilak Lake, and tributaries to other lakes within the Kenai River drainage.
Most of those waters are protected in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge or Chugach National Forest, and most of the tributary streams are closed to sockeye fishing. The Kenai River above Skilak Lake is also closed to motorized boats, which commercial fishermen said can disturb spawning salmon, though there is no scientific evidence to indicate that is a problem on the Kenai.
Commercial salmon fishermen argue that weak returns of king and silver salmon to the Kenai and the Susitna River drainages are due to development in the Southcentral part of the state or the growth of predatory northern pike populations in the Mat-Su. But kings and silvers are struggling in other parts of Alaska, including in the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages where there is no development and where pike have thrived forever.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.