The on-going Board of Fisheries meeting dealing with Cook Inlet salmon plans has been rough on the commercial fishermen, taking a big red pen to the Central District drift gillnet plan after potentially reducing fishing time for the setnet fleet by half.
In what many in the drift fleet consider a clear slap, the board replaced a proposal drawn up by commercial fishermen with one that was drawn up by a sportfishing organization from the Mat-Su, one that Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff testified would make it unlikely to be able to manage for current escapement goals in the Kenai River.
The board did not even discuss or deliberate on the plan drawn up by the drift fleet.
However, in an apparent nod to concerns from the Homer City Council and the Homer Chamber of Commerce about moving the fleet out of Homer, an additional area was added to the south line that follows a line from Anchor Point west for 12.5 miles, then angles up to a point five miles off the beach at Ninilchik.
Drift fishermen have largely deemed the area useless, filled with kelp beds and charter boats anchored up fishing halibut in those kelp beds, which creates serious safety issues and gear conflicts.
ADFG Area Management Biologist Pat Shields told the board that the southern test boat has its first station at the outermost corner of that box, and that it is consistently the least productive station.
The new drift plan does liberalize fishing area slightly, early in the season, allowing an extra opening in Area 1, south of Kalgin Island, between July 9 and 15.
However, during the peak of the season, between July 15 and 31, at run strengths of less than 2.6 million sockeye to the Kenai River, drifters will be restricted to the expanded Kenai and Kasilof corridors for all openings instead of just one per week, and on run strengths exceeding 4.6 million, where previously there had been no restrictions, the fleet is now confined to the expanded corridor and the new Anchor Point section for one period per week.
The new plan also includes a “one percent rule,” where after Aug. 1, if the fleet fails to catch 1 percent of the total season catch to date during two consecutive periods, the upper inlet closes and drifters are confined to Areas 3 and 4, on the lower west side, to conserve Mat-Su-bound coho.
Those coho, a prized sport fish, are the main reason for the ongoing battle, according to Arni Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance.
“That’s what this is all about, this curtailing the drifters,” he said. “That’s been going on for quite awhile in terms of the Mat-Su concern.”
Thompson said the stars were aligned for those interests this board cycle.
“Now they’re well positioned politically to affect the changes that they want to do.”
Thompson said ASA is trying to sound the alarm about the effects of the plan.
“By compressing the fishery closer to shore, our concern is it could have some very negative long-term effects on the Kenai sockeye stocks, which is an even bigger issue in terms of the overall economy of Southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “There’s a $100 million payroll at stake.”
ASA, which represents processors and fishermen, is worried about repeated comments by board chair Karl Johnstone and other board members that, even though it is clearly stated that the sockeye fishery is to be managed primarily for commercial harvest, the fleet should be prepared to share an increasingly large portion of the runs with the public, since most of the population of the state lives within driving distance of the Kenai River.
But there also seemed to be a disconnect in logic when Johnstone also stated he was not concerned about over-escapement in the Kenai River, which is known to lead to smaller returns.
“That’s a huge concern for us also,” Thompson said, “because our livelihood depends on a stable allocation of sockeye, and a healthy sockeye return to the Kenai and Kasilof. So if you go too far with providing fish for all Alaskans, then you really do stand to jeopardize the healthy runs to the Kenai River. This (new plan) could start resulting immediately in some very large over-escapements.”
He said there are some wild misconceptions about how many coho are intercepted by the drift fleet, with the popular notion in the Mat-Su that it is 40 or 50 percent of those stocks.
“The whole thing about coho interception is theoretical. There’s very little science. The only tag and recapture study that’s ever been done, in 2002, shows about 5 percent intercept of northern-bound coho stocks.”
Thompson also said that resistance to enhancing coho stocks is a strategy designed to rid Cook Inlet of commercial fishermen.
“They’re holding back on enhancing stocks, because they don’t want to dilute the blame on the commercial fishermen.
“It’s a radical campaign, crusade, that started with (Kenai River property owner) Bob Penney 25 years ago. His goal is to eliminate commercial fishing in Cook Inlet,” Thompson said.
Many fishermen at the meetings have been concerned about what seems to be a dismissive attitude toward the commercial fishery.
In discussing restrictions to the setnet fleet, board member Tom Kluberton drew considerable ire when he said that he had been told that most commercial salmon fishermen have other jobs, and that fishing was just a “pleasant pastime” for them.
In her testimony the next day on drift fishery proposals, drifter Catherine Cassidy gave voice to that ire.
“I have to say, Mr. Chairman, with due respect and sincerity, when someone sitting at your table says Cook Inlet commercial fishing is just a pleasant pastime, it is disingenuous, deliberately insulting, and it reflects poorly on the process,” she said.
The meetings were scheduled to end Feb. 13, but Johnstone announced that it would take at least until Feb. 15 to wrap things up.
Audio streaming is available at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.main.
The drift plan is RC 236, available at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.meetinginfo&date=01-31-2014&meeting=uci.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.