Editor’s note: This is the 10th and final part of the Morris Communications series “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon.”
King salmon are the lynchpin of the Cook Inlet fishery. Other runs of other salmon species are far more abundant, but the health of king salmon affects all users.
Alaska is currently experiencing historic low runs of king salmon returning to major systems throughout the state. This decline affects Alaskans who have fished for kings for years in these rivers and creeks, and the visitors thousands of businesses depend on every summer.
Soldotna business sales are off 10 percent to 20 percent. There are more than 100 fewer guide licenses on the Kenai River now compared to 2007, a 28 percent decrease, and “For Sale” signs adorn many lodges.
Further, the sale prices of these are going down. Many attribute this to the lack of kings. The assessed values of riverfront homes have been a great help to the area, producing tax revenues that translate into jobs, goods and services.
This reduction of value and the number of people wanting to sell is occurring during a downtrend in sports and guided sports harvests of kings. At the same time sports and dipnet harvests of sockeye are remaining robust. What does that say about the value of the king salmon?
What must also be recognized is that in the last 30 to 40 years there has been a tremendous increase in demand for these resources caused by a large population increase in the greater Anchorage-Kenai Peninsula area. Also in the last few years, major road improvements have made access to the Kenai River quick and easy.
The population of the greater Southcentral area, which uses the fisheries of the Upper Cook Inlet for putting fish in their freezers and for recreational purposes, was just more than 100,000 about 40 years ago. Today it is nearly 400,000. The Greater Cook Inlet-Anchorage Metro Area is home to more than 70 percent of the state’s population.
The management of the fisheries has not changed sufficiently to reflect the demands of an ever-increasing population who have come to Alaska to enjoy its natural resources in one way or another.
Low abundance of king salmon also restricts commercial fishermen, particularly setnetters targeting Kenai- and Kasilof-bound sockeye. The low abundance of king salmon, though more recent to Cook Inlet than other parts of the state such as the Yukon, has affected relations between neighbors on the Kenai Peninsula and the politics in Juneau.
With some exceptions, it has not affected relations for the better on the eve of the Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting that begins Jan. 31.
Alaska law requires the state to manage salmon for “sustained yield” first and foremost, but the economic importance of meeting this policy cannot be understated. We saw in 2012 what kind of economic disaster will unfold should it become necessary to take additional dramatic steps to conserve the Kenai River king salmon.
Although king salmon are the lynchpin of Cook Inlet’s mixed stock salmon fisheries, at the same time we know that more freezers are filled around Alaska with sockeye from Cook Inlet than any other species.
Ensuring sockeye returns large enough to support viable commercial fisheries and a growing population that relies on the personal use dipnet and in-river fisheries is an equally important task for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. More than 26,000 Alaska families dipnetted for sockeye in the Kenai River in 2013.
Although it will never replace a dream of a lifetime chance to catch the iconic Kenai king, strong sockeye returns and larger numbers of sockeye entering the Kenai will provide additional opportunity for visiting anglers.
ADFG has drawn criticism for allowing the harvest of some kings by setnetters in the name of preventing too many sockeye from entering the Kenai River. It has also been suggested the Kenai can handle larger sockeye escapements than the top end of the goal.
While ADFG must ensure minimum escapement for kings is met, this important objective must be balanced against unnecessary loss of harvest opportunity for valuable sockeye salmon.
Patience also is needed. These are long-lived fish, and improvements will only be observed generationally. Recent low returns have been produced by the largest king salmon runs ever measured on the Kenai River, so it cannot be argued the current low abundance has been caused by ADFG not allowing enough fish onto the spawning grounds.
Nevertheless, now is not the time to consistently challenge the lower bound of king salmon escapement goals.
All users should expect conservation measures for years to come, and should adapt their business accordingly if they haven’t already. Bringing together competing users is a difficult task in the best of times. It is even more difficult to achieve when all are facing serious declines of certain highly valuable species. It can be nearly impossible to achieve when all are facing an uncertain future.
Solving the problem of the Kenai River king salmon must first begin with the agreement that the future includes all users.
The Board of Fisheries is the most direct form of public resource management conceived in this country, and for that it is worth preserving. But the process also has become, like many parts of our politics, highly factionalized.
Making decisions that shift millions of dollars among users will always be controversial, so it is imperative that board members endeavor to be impartial and objective on every decision. Both on the Board of Fisheries and at the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council, it was a well-intentioned decision to require the appointment of stakeholders.
But all too often, the members of these bodies vote as representatives of a constituency rather than the original premise that stakeholders would use their knowledge of a fishery to make an informed vote. Trust erodes in the process when the public starts to put members into competing camps whose votes are as predictable as the sun staying below the December horizon in Barrow.
While there are variations around the state both in timing and levels of abundance, king salmon are unquestionably at a time of low productivity. The widespread nature of the issue is an indicator of ocean forces at play, especially when rivers with low fishing pressure or supplemented with hatchery stocks also are seeing smaller returns.
Larger forces than we can control may be impacting kings, but times of low abundance require all manmade effects to be minimized as well, whether it is trawler bycatch, commercial harvest, personal use, catch-and-release mortality or habitat degradation. When a salmon run is at risk, conservation must be given a priority.
All users must have a future in Alaska fisheries, and all must be required to sacrifice to ensure enough king salmon reach their spawning grounds.
It took several years before the Board of Fisheries and ADFG responded to the decline of king salmon on the Yukon River. Now the Board of Fisheries has prohibited the use of large mesh gear on the Yukon that catches king salmon, and other harvest methods for chum salmon such as dipnets are being attempted.
The known costs of belated actions to conserve Yukon kings include drastic restrictions on subsistence users, missed goals on the numbers required by treaty to reach Canada and the foregone harvest of abundant chum salmon. The unknown costs remain as to whether the characteristics of the once-mighty Yukon king has been forever altered.
Perhaps learning from its lessons on the Yukon, ADFG has gotten the message of responding quickly to conservation issues. After liberalizing harvest of kings on the Kuskokwim in 2013 before upriver needs were met, ADFG was left to admit it erred when the run tailed off two weeks earlier than the historic average.
That led ADFG to announce in its postseason summary it would take an even more conservative approach on the Kuskokwim in 2014 to ensure upriver users receive enough kings first before commercial fishing increases.
ADFG must approach Cook Inlet management with the same kind of caution this summer, although it will be challenged by what is forecast to be an above-average run of sockeye predicted to total 6.1 million among all river systems and continuing very low numbers of king salmon. Consideration for preservation of the minority species must be a priority.
In 2013, as the king and sockeye seasons opened in July, ADFG allowed setnetters their regular openings twice per week plus additional fishing time. It also began the year allowing sport harvest before later shifting to catch-and-release based on low king salmon counts.
Still well short of the king salmon escapement goal by July 28, ADFG closed setnetters and the in-river sport targeting of king salmon. The department was saved on meeting the goal by more kings showing up after Aug. 1, but it cannot rely on late-arriving kings just to meet the minimum goal every year.
In March 2013, ADFG recommended a new escapement goal range off 15,000 to 30,000 late-run Kenai River kings based on an analysis of historical data and necessitated by the transition between older and new sonar technology.
ADFG describes this new goal not as fewer fish, but as a necessary conversion from the previous, and less accurate, sonar count. However, others argued that it actually lowered the goal and pointed out that only on two occasions over the last 35 years has the actual escapement fallen below 20,000.
Setnetters and in-river sport anglers will bear the brunt of king salmon conservation measures if needed. Commercial drift gillnet boats only take a few hundred Kenai kings each season, on average just less than 1,000 per year since 1966, while annual setnet harvest numbers have averaged 9,748 per year over that period according to ADFG data.
At the same time ADFG must use equal tools and equal enforcement for both sport fishermen and commercial fishermen.
At the present time the sport fishery in the Kenai River is overseen by three state and two federal enforcement agencies. These are the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Public Safety, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.
Setnetting is managed and enforced by ADFG, Department of Public Safety and the Department of Natural Resources. Enforcement strategies differ greatly between the river and the beach because of the different nature of each fishery. Additional enforcement of all fisheries will be necessary to achieve conservation of king salmon during these times of historic low abundance.
Gov. Sean Parnell has recognized the importance of this issue, pushing for and getting $30 million last year for king salmon research at a time of reduced budgets.
One of the greatest issues of contention is the accuracy of ADFG data, and that must improve with these research funds. Historic run data is based partly on sonar data the department is hesitant to rely on entirely because of its shortcomings in distinguishing king salmon among large numbers of sockeyes.
Now ADFG is integrating the best available sonar technology on the Kenai River at a time of low abundance when every king counts. For instance, last August, ADFG refused to open the setnetters on their last possible day of fishing because it was still 29 king salmon short of meeting the minimum end of the goal.
Setnetters cried foul, but such actions whether mandated by management plans or political pressure are inevitable in the current environment. When any run is in a downward spiral, conservation must be given primary consideration.
Size selectivity is also important. We’ve seen on the Yukon River that large mesh nets over time harvested the largest kings, and now the returning fish are smaller, fewer in number and contain a greater ratio of males than in more productive times.
Scientists who have studied salmon for decades suggest that minimum size limits intended for conservative purposes may have instead, over time, led to removing the fish predisposed to grow the largest and fastest.
Targeting the largest king salmon, whether commercially or recreationally, may have lasting affects on the characteristics of the stock and result in lower numbers of eggs being deposited in the gravel. In response, smaller mesh nets, shallow depth nets and other harvest methods such as dipnets are now required in many non-king mixed species commercial fisheries in an effort to reduce king catch.
Just as commercial and sport fishermen have been forced to adapt to king conservation through time, area and gear restrictions, it also may be time for a cultural change in how the Alaska sportfishing experience is marketed.
As has been seen over the past decade in the halibut fishery, diminishing size of the species and associated harvest restrictions have impacted charter operators’ ability to market the “trophy opportunity.”
No trophy-sized kings have been taken on the Kenai River since 2009, which calls into question whether promoting the chance to hook one is sustainable over the long run.
All users want a return to a time when the kings and sockeyes of Cook Inlet couwld support everyone’s needs. Getting there means sacrifice and conservation from everyone. More than many of their fellow American citizens, Alaskans have a deep appreciation for sustainability and a pride in not only being able to co-exist with our bountiful natural resources, but to build a thriving economy around them. Conserving the Kenai king salmon is a perfect opportunity to do just that.
But as has been pointed out in this series of articles, “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon,” times have changed.
The Board of Fisheries and ADFG must adapt to these changes in their regulatory policies and management strategies to reflect the overwhelming popularity of the sports and dip net fisheries. If they do, Alaska’s constitutional mandate that the fish resources shall be utilized for the “maximum benefit to its people” will be well served.
Whatever methods are used, preservation of this national treasure is a mandate.