PALMER — Alaska's top fish manager faced an emotionally charged crowd in Palmer on Tuesday night that accused him of catering to the commercial Cook Inlet fleet and Kenai River interests at the cost of the once-plentiful salmon of the Mat-Su region.
After a dismal sportfishing summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided this week to loosen Little Su limits amid a delayed surge of salmon. But the decision came too late for the tourist crowds and local families with kids already in school and readying for the Alaska State Fair.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission convened the meeting with Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten and other top officials over the state's "chronic failure" to let salmon pass through the Inlet to popular fishing areas like the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers.
"We just want an honest, fair chance," Borough Mayor Vern Halter said.
Before a crowd of about 75, commission chair Terry Nininger warned against vulgar or inappropriate comments during public testimony. A Palmer police officer stood in the back of the crowded Assembly chambers.
But that warning did little to stop Willow Creek Resort owner Farley Dean, who lit into Cotten and the others for "killing the Mat-Su Borough with the Kenai River" and bringing down his $1.5 million business with low fish numbers and complex angling regulations.
"Thirty years ago! You told me wait, be patient and we'll give you more fish," Dean shouted, before Nininger asked him to settle down. "For 30 years you guys have lied to every person in this room."
Two openings in late July and early August for the commercial driftnet fleet infuriated many.
The fleet caught nearly 90,000 silver salmon in two days — more than the sockeye they targeted — even as barely 200 fish straggled to historic strongholds in the Little Susitna River, several people pointed out.
"I'm here today because I'm really sincerely concerned about the Little Su coho fishery," said Ben Allen, who guides 400 to 500 customers on the Deshka and Little Su with Miller's Riverboat Service.
State and borough officials told the crowd to direct their anger and frustration — and large numbers — at the state body that develops the policies behind fishing regulations, the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
Board member Israel Payton, of Wasilla, said only about 20 or 30 people from the Mat-Su Borough attended the board meeting in Anchorage in March when it decided to reduce some protections on Susitna stocks.
"A lot of the testimony I've heard in here, I'd have liked to have heard at the Board of Fisheries," Payton said.
Cotten defended the state's fishing decisions in the Inlet. He pointed out that the drift fleet got only two district-wide openings between July 6 and Aug. 15, though the regulations allow for more. Meanwhile, Cotten said, the state balances seven user groups on the Kenai, from people using dipnets and sport rods to driftnetters and Mat-Su interests wanting northbound fish.
"It's not unusual to hear people say there shouldn't be any commercial fishing," he said. "That's a view that's not held by the management plan or the department. We support all uses."
Right now, the Central District Drift Gillnet Management Plan guides commercial fishing and regulates the number that are allowed to pass nets and head north, according to Scott Kelley, director of the state's commercial fisheries division.
Making sure enough sockeye return to the Kenai drives the other fisheries, Kelley said.
Several people asked how even the recent commercial openings could occur when fewer than 200 coho had returned to spawn on the Little Su — a river that's supposed to have at least 10,000 spawners a year.
Fish and Game's commercial and sport fishing divisions need to coordinate decisions, borough commissioner Howard Delo said.
"I'm not saying you're not talking to each other but sometimes you've got to wonder who swings the most weight in some of these discussions," said Delo, a retired Fish and Game biologist who served on the Board of Fisheries.
Along with regulatory concerns, the Mat-Su lacks the tools — fish-counting sonar, off-shore test fisheries — to help managers make run predictions, several commissioners said.
Mat-Su Commissioner Steve Colligan, an outgoing Mat-Su Assembly member from Wasilla, also pointed out that the borough can't do much about ocean fishing or Cook Inlet regulations but has aggressively worked toward improving culverts and other land-based blocks to salmon.
Nearly every member of the Mat-Su legislative delegation sat in the audience but remained silent during testimony.
The Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission is asking the state to err on the side of conservation instead of surplus commercial catches; restore a sonar device on the Susitna River; continue a weir on Jim Creek and foot survey on McRoberts Creek; and restore a test fishery off Kalgin Island.