2014 Board of Fish meeting: Cynical synopsis by inlet drifter

The Board of Fisheries has been meeting in Anchorage recently with their focus on Upper Cook Inlet fisheries management.  I was there for most of it, as I have been for nearly 40 years.

Remember long ago when the Marlboro man advertised the benefits of smoking?  Many of you are too young for this one, but at one time in the recent past smoking was advertised as being good for you. Clearly this idea has been disproven by science.

Tying this to Cook Inlet fisheries, it was once thought that if you put the fleet way over on the edge of the inlet in the corridor, we would catch fewer fish bound for the Northern District. Guess what: Genetic science has disproven this long held assumption.

Did the Board of Fish members believe the data generated by their own department?  In a word, no.  The BOF thinks it is just fine to keep on smoking — er, “corridorizing” the fleet.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association for months has been running a splashy, expensive campaign to “Save our Kenai Kings.” An objective takeaway from the meeting: They really want to “Save our Kenai River Guides,” not kings. The BOF had numerous opportunities to take meaningful action to “Save our Kenai Kings,” but declined. No meaningful sanctuaries. No extra drift-only days. No reduction in horsepower of the big sleds.

KRSA fought hard to make certain that none of these possible remedies were taken seriously.  The Kenai king is now one BOF meeting closer to extinction. And KRSA claims to be a 501c3 nonprofit organization that focuses on conservation, not politics. Right. They appear to be happy enough to continue killing the river for short term gain; catching them until they are gone. 

A few highlights:

The sports fishing industry wrote the new commercial fishing management plans, ignoring new science that has become available. In a commercial fishery that supplies 5 percent of the global production of wild sockeye and $200 million to our economy, the sport fish lobby wrote the commercial fisheries plan. Seriously.

Two members of the board (Johnstone and Kluberton) dominated all discussion, and were clearly in control. The other five members were rarely heard, and often seemed steamrolled.

The board, despite dozens of submissions of scientific data, totally ignored all the implications. For instance, a recently released Kenai River turbidity study that irrefutably illustrates a connection between motorboat traffic and dangerously poor in-river water quality was totally ignored. 

Quite clear that the underlying motive is to save the guides rather than save the Kenai king.

The facts prove that plenty of fish currently make their way through the commercial fishery to Northern District streams. The drift fleet harvests only about 5 percent of the silvers headed up that way — 95 percent  of a million silvers is clearly not enough for this insatiable appetite.

A huge user group has been rejected entirely in this process:  people that buy fish from commercial fishermen. Not everyone is a combat fisherman.

The board restricted setnet-
ters.  Even less fishing time, linkage to in-river closures, incentives to reduce gear by cutting it down and making it shallower. No science to back up these actions.

The board continues to manage the fleet in various “boxes” and “corridors” despite new science that disproves the concept that this will reduce harvest of Northern District sockeye.  Adaptive in-season management would be far more effective. Prescriptive areas defy real-time salmon movements.

The board is convinced that tens of thousands of “extra” fish will find their way to Mat Valley streams due to corridor restrictions. If this doesn’t work, as we told them it would not, we will get the blame anyway.  Science doesn’t matter, only political perception matters.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, when asked, admitted that overescapment of salmon into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers would be detrimental to future runs. The department has allowed for sockeye overescapement in the Kenai in eight of the past 11 years. The risk to future stocks and lost harvest opportunities to fishermen and the Kenai Peninsula Borough economy had no impact on the discussion.

The overwhelming, clear, singleminded goals: “Get the silvers home regardless of cost” and “keep KRSA and the guides happy regardless of adverse habitat impacts to the Kenai River.”

Managing a $200 million-plus fishery to the weakest link makes no sense. Yes, let’s be sure that adequate fish return to streams and rivers. But the obvious eagerness of the board to manage the entire fishery to the benefit of “300,000 folks in the valley with a fishing pole in one hand” (and a vote in the other) at the expense of jobs and the economy on the Kenai Peninsula represents more than swagger and grab.  

It is simply morally and ethically wrong.

Frank Mullen was born on a homestead on the banks of the Kenai River and is  the son of one of Soldotna’s first families. Mullen has been a sport and commercial fisherman all his life, a businessman and served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for three terms. He lives in Homer.