United Cook Inlet Drift Association is holding a series of meetings to prepare its members and other upper Cook Inlet salmon fishermen for the upcoming Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings. The goal is to encourage them to sign up to give informed testimony at those meetings, which take place in Anchorage Jan. 31 through Feb. 13.
The first BOF preparatory meetings took place six weeks ago in Kenai and Homer, and covered some new ground in the biology of Cook Inlet runs that was not available the last time upper Cook Inlet issues came before the BOF in 2011.
UCIDA director Roland Maw presented information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that showed how over-escapement of sockeye into the Kenai River has impacted several year classes, leading to diminishing diversity.
“In the world of ecology, diversity means stability, simplicity means instability,” Maw said.
Kenai River sockeye have the widest age distribution of any salmon in the world, with 14 different possible age class combinations of time in fresh and salt water, but six of those were absent in the 2013 run.
“That’s the characteristic of an unmanaged system, these wild fluctuations,” he said.
Concerns about bio-diversity were heightened with the 2013 run, when nearly 600,000 fish, almost half the total return, flooded past the sonar over three days. Nearly a quarter million passed the sonar on July 16 alone.
The timing of that surge was problematic for the dipnetters, as well, since it took place mid-week when fewer people could take advantage of them.
Maw contends that if the drift fleet had been allowed to fish those schools, it would have dispersed them and staggered their entry into the river.
The drift fleet only fished three Cook Inlet-wide periods in July, and none after July 8, contrary to the fisheries management plan hammered out by the fish board in 2011.
Ostensibly, that was to allow for the passage of sockeye to the northern district, but even after those rivers had reached their escapement goals, the fleet was restricted to the corridor and Area 1, below Kalgin Island.
They were told that was to allow for the passage silver salmon, in spite of it being a very strong silver run, but the area they were given to fish instead made it more likely that they would catch large numbers of silvers, which they did.
Many fishermen think that was due to political pressure from Mat-Su area legislators Bill Stoltze and Mike Dunleavy, which included a pre-season letter sent to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell stating that “…of utmost importance is for the Department to ensure that the corridor program be maintained throughout the month of July without exception.”
Stoltze chairs the Fish and Game finance sub-committee and holds the purse strings to the ADFG budget.
Maw also talked about what is called the Markov table, data from ADFG that shows the ideal number of spawners in order to maximize runs.
That table, taken from the number of returning fish per spawner from 1969 to 2006, shows that an escapement of 600,000 to 800,000 sockeye in the Kenai River produces the largest returns, averaging 6.6 fish returning per spawner.
Escapments of 1.2 to 1.4 million sockeye produce 2.1 returns per spawner on average.
The Kenai River sockeye escapement goals are set up on a three-tier system, the only river in the state managed in such a fashion, from 700,000 to 1.4 million, depending on run size.
The 2013 escapement made the upper level of that range.
“The Markov table is a way to organize your data that says, ‘where do you get your best bang for the buck?’” Maw said.
The second of the three sets of meetings was set for Nov. 13 and 14, covering proposals and strategy, but has been rolled into the third set, Dec. 12 at the Elks Lodge in Homer and Dec. 13 at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association in Kenai, covering presentations and testimony.
Maw said the number one priority with regard to proposals is to get the fleet back out into the middle of the Inlet on the regular Monday and Thursday fishing periods set out in the previous management plan.
“If there’s additional fishing opportunity, we expect that to occur,” he said, “even on very short notice, as little as two hours.”
He noted that drift and setnet fishermen used to have short notice periods quite regularly, but it has not happened for quite a while. He said the setnet organization has agreed to the UCIDA proposals.
He added that if there is a conservation concern and a reason to restrict the commercial fishermen, UCIDA expects that burden to be shared equitably across all user groups, including dipnetters.
Regarding strategy, Maw said that biology is kind of a funny thing, it is not always obvious where it is going to lead, but it is important to understand it to make good fishery management decisions.
“Otherwise, we’re going to delude ourselves into this happy-happy land where there’s no fish,” he said.
Overall, Maw said, UCIDA is looking at what its number one priorities are, and why it is appropriate that the drift fleet be allowed to fish their normal periods, as well as sharing the conservation burden and harvest opportunity among all user groups.
“We expect the other user groups to be responsible users, and to not waste fish,” he said, alluding to a number of anecdotes of non-residents using the dipnet fishery to catch fish and sell them at flea markets and yard sales in the Lower 48, as well as Dumpsters full of last year’s fish when the personal use season starts.
A full list of upper Cook Inlet proposals as well as other meeting information can be found at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.main.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.