As you are out and about during this unusual winter, a clipboard-wielding stranger might approach you and ask if you want to save king salmon. Don’t be fooled. The petition being peddled by professional signature collectors throughout the state won’t save Alaska’s iconic king salmon. In fact, it will hurt our great salmon runs and result in smaller harvests for everyone except a small group of Kenai River sportfishing guides, lodges and private landowners.
The goal of this petition is to put a misleading initiative in front of Alaska voters that, if passed, would end setnet fishing in Cook Inlet, put hundreds of Alaska families out of work, destroy one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest economic drivers and, most important, weaken the salmon runs on which Cook Inlet’s commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen depend.
Initiative sponsors claim conservation as their goal but this initiative isn’t about saving fish, it’s about putting more king salmon in the river for the sport fishery to catch.
That’s not conservation. It’s greed.
This selfish effort to ban setnets hits home for me: My wife is my business partner; my two teen-age children are members of our commercial-fishing crew. Our business, our income, our investment in boats, motors, equipment, land, shore leases and gear would all be rendered valueless because a small group of well-financed, dishonest people want all the fish. It has taken the joy out of fishing and replaced it with fear for the future of this valuable, rich and colorful fishery.
In 2013, the average king harvested in the East Side Setnet fishery was very small; more than 75 percent weighed about 10 pounds or less. These three- and four-year-old kings are not valued by the sport fishery, which targets and retains only large kings.
That same year, the East Side Setnet fishery harvested 2,988 king salmon. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s genetic stock identification studies, approximately 2,300 of these were Kenai River late-run king salmon. Only 715 were large kings the sport fishery desires.
Based on data from 1986-2011, the Kenai River sport fishery harvests about 22 percent of the total annual king run. If the East Side Setnet fishery had been eliminated and those additional 715 large kings had entered the Kenai River, only about 157 fish would have been caught by sport fishermen.
More fish will reach the spawning grounds under the scenario above, but when a river meets its escapement goal, additional fish make no impact on the health of the run, nor on the strength of subsequent returns. The Kenai River’s late king run has made its escapement goal every year since biologists have tracked it.
So this initiative would kill an entire industry and put thousands out of work to provide sport-fishermen the opportunity to catch an additional 157 king salmon.
Because of a poor king run in 2013, the East Side Setnet fishery was open under a very restrictive fishing schedule. Even so, the fishery generated an ex-vessel value of more than $9 million with its sockeye salmon catch alone.
According to an analysis of Alaska’s commercial seafood industry conducted by the Alaska-based McDowell Group, sockeye taken in Cook Inlet setnet fisheries generate a big impact in Alaska because the expenditure per fish is relatively high, and more are sold into local markets. McDowell says a conservative multiplier of 4 to 4.5 must be applied to that ex-vessel value to realize its true impact. That means the $9 million East Side Setnet harvest brought roughly $40 million to the local economy. Had a setnet ban been in place, Alaska’s economy would have been deprived of these millions of dollars and thousands of fishing jobs.
In order to offset the loss of the East Side Setnet fishery, those additional 157 kings would have to generate more than $250,000 each, if caught in the in-river fishery.
What is likely to happen if the inlet is managed solely for the guided sportfishing industry? Just look at the health of the Kenai River’s early king run for your answer. This run is fished solely by the sport fishery, and has been for decades. Unfortunately, it is in dire straits, having missed its escapement goals several times over the last two decades, most recently in 2013. Recent weir data shows that the majority of the run now consists of small, male fish.
That comes as no surprise, either, as sport fishermen have continually selectively fished for the large, trophy kings, foregoing the smaller jacks. Size is a heritable trait in king salmon, and the removal of generation after generation of the large fish by the guided sport fishery has had a detrimental impact on Kenai River early-run king salmon both in run strength and individual fish size. The East Side Setnet fishery, with nets designed to catch sockeye weighing four- to 10-pound, also catch kings of the same size, giving the big Kenai kings that make it to the spawning grounds a greater impact on the population’s gene pool.
This anti-setnet initiative has nothing to do with truth or conservation. It’s simply a smoke screen to hide the negative impact of the guided sport fishery on the health and well being of Kenai River king salmon.
Andy Hall is an East Side Setnetter, a lifelong Alaskan and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.