Issues to watch at the Board of Fisheries

Fishermen, regulators, biologists and stakeholders will gather in Anchorage later this month to clash over and collaborate on Upper Cook Inlet fisheries policies.

The state Board of Fisheries will meet in Anchorage from Feb. 23-March 8 at the Sheraton Hotel to wade through the approximately 175 proposals related to commercial, sport and personal use fisheries in the Upper Cook Inlet area. The meetings have been historically rife with controversy, especially over commercial fishing allocations and fishing times and regulations for the highly popular Kenai River king salmon fishery.

Proposals range in scope from changing entire swaths of management for a fishery to minor changes in gear allowed for a small part of a river or stream. The board will hear staff reports and public comment at the meeting and send the proposals through the committee process before taking a vote.

Although the proposals address a variety of different issues, a few major themes will recur throughout the meeting.

Kenai big-fish goal

The famed Kenai kings have inched their way back up in abundance, but there’s still concern about the size and age classes.

Fish and Game is recommending switching to a size-specific escapement goal for king salmon, commonly known as the “big fish” goal, by the 2017 season. The managers would set goals for king salmon at 75 centimeters, or approximately 33.3 inches, and longer, passing the sonar at river mile 13.7. Currently, managers aim for an early run escapement of 5,300-9,000 fish and a late run escapement of 15,000-30,000 fish of all sizes.

Converting to the big-fish goal, Fish and Game is recommending an escapement goal of 2,800-5,600 early-run big fish and 13,500-27,000 late-run big fish. The smaller kings would no longer count toward the goal.

The primary purpose is to allow the department to manage more easily for large kings and provide more accurate abundance estimates. In-river sonar counters send pulses out to detect fish as they pass, but counting kings can be difficult because they tend to swim further out and deeper than other salmon species like sockeye, which are more bank-oriented. Other fish species get in the way, obscuring the sonar images, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish sockeye salmon from smaller kings based on size.

Converting to the large king goal will help eliminate the confusion between large sockeye and small kings — sockeye rarely reach 33.3 inches or longer, according to a Fish and Game analysis submitted for the Board of Fisheries meeting.

Other river systems in the state have already switched to big-fish goals. Most of the river systems with king salmon escapement goals in Southeast Alaska operate on big fish-only goals.

The implications have different effects on different user groups. Kings are a central driver for the sport fishing economy on the Kenai River, and the preseason forecasts and escapements determine what gear sportfishermen can use on the river or whether the king salmon fishery is open to retention. The numbers also play into how many hours of opportunity set gillnet commercial operators get to fish per week.

The numbers seem low to some. During the Kenai River Special Management Area’s Thursday meeting, the members expressed concern that after all the user groups had taken their usual harvests, there may not be enough fish to provide for escapement. The late run of kings came in stronger than in past years and the sport fishery was liberalized to the use of bait and retention, but ended up finishing the season with a final escapement closer to the lower end of the escapement goals.

Monte Roberts, who chairs the guide advisory committee for the KRSMA board, said at the meeting that he hoped Fish and Game would manage the liberalization more conservatively to allow more fish up the river next season.

“If we would have stayed thorughout the run with no bait last year, we could have finished with a little more comfortably. … I don’t think that your escapement goals, even with large fish being 34 inches or larger, are adequate,” he said.

Most of the kings returning to the river are taken in either the inriver sport fishery or by the shore-based set gillnet fishery. The 2014 Board of Fisheries meeting, the first regular cycle meeting after critically low king returns in 2012, resulted in a regulation regime that linked setnet openings to king escapement projections and counts, known as paired restrictions.

Setnetters have argued that this unfairly puts the burden of conservation on the commercial fishery, while sport anglers still get to fish, even when it is no-bait or catch-and-release only. A set of proposals submitted to the board ask for the board to loosen restrictions, including eliminating the one percent rule for setnets and either eliminating or changing the pairings for the paired restrictions.

Personal use fishery

Many Kenai residents have a horror story or two about collisions or near-collisions between boats near the Kenai City Dock during the personal use dipnet fishery every July.

The beaches crowded and riverbank access limited, many dipnetters choose to head out in boats instead, which are authorized between the river mouth and the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge. However, there is often conflict near the dock, where commercial fishing vessels pass by on their way to deliver to the processors and larger sport craft come and go. In July 2016, Kenai fire and law enforcement responded to four capsized boats and two boat collisions, according to the 2016 City of Kenai Dipnet Report.

That’s likely not all of the incidents, either, wrote Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross in a memo to the city council on the dipnet report.

“There may have been additional, unreported, capsized boats as well,” he wrote.

Boating accidents are reported to various agencies at various times. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Boating Safety recorded five boating accidents with no fatalities between 2012 and 2016, one of which was reported as dipnetting and another that occurred near the Kenai City Dock, according to an email from Alaska WaterWise program coordinator Joe McCullough.

Other agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation also receive and document boating accident reports. The reports are not synthesized and available to the public, making it unclear exactly how many boating accidents occur on the river every year. At its Feb. 9 meeting, the Kenai River Special Management Area advisory board adopted a resolution supporting a synthesized report of the various accidents.

The board will consider a number of proposals dealing with changes to the personal use fishery. At an October worksession in Soldotna, board members mulled a potential board-generated proposal to limit the size of boats in the fishery. The board ultimately voted down the proposal, though the issue could come up again as a board-generated proposal at the meeting in Anchorage.

Drift gillnet regulations

Cook Inlet’s drift gillnetters are afloat between management plans. After a state court ruled in favor of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, saying Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery should be under a federal Fisheries Management Plan, the plan going forward has been unclear.

Multiple proposals submitted for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting ask for the board to reinstate regular weekly fishing periods in the Central District, a drift gillnet fishery that takes place between the Anchor Point Light and Boulder Point in Cook Inlet. Most of them, offered both by groups and individuals, ask for inseason abundance-based management. Similar proposals from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee state that the Central District area and time restrictions are based on faulty escapement data for Susitna sockeye stocks, stemming from a 2009 report quantifying the underperformance of a weir at the mouth of the Yentna River.

“It makes no sense, especially in this time of huge budget deficits, to continue poor stewardship of the resource in management plans that literally waste millions of dollars and millions of harvestable surplus salmon and jeopardizes future salmon returns,” one of the Central Peninsula AC’s proposals states.

On the other hand, groups including the Alaska Outdoor Council, the Alaska Sport Fishing Association and the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee are seeking additional restrictions on the drift fleet in August, saying the drift fleet impedes Susitna-area sockeye and coho stocks from making it through to the rivers.

“As currently configured the plan allowed unnecessary drift gillnet fishing in Drift Gillnet Area 2 during the first half of August, which jeopardizes both attainment of Northern District drainage salmon escapement needs and reasonable salmon harvest opportunities for Northern District and Northern District drainage user groups,” the Mat-Su AC’s proposal states, referring to Area 2, one of the subsections of the Central District.

Multiple proposals also ask for changes to the Kasilof and Kenai rivers’ sockeye salmon escapement goals, ranging from the removal of the optimum escapement goal on the Kenai to changing the biological escapement goal on the Kenai to a sustainable escapement goal. The board will also hear new recommendations about escapement goals from Fish and Game biologists at the meeting.

In this July 2016 photo, dipnetters make their way out into the water at the mouth of the Kenai River during the annual personal use dipnet fishery in Kenai, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

In this July 2016 photo, dipnetters make their way out into the water at the mouth of the Kenai River during the annual personal use dipnet fishery in Kenai, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

A drift boat is parked near the Copper River Seafoods buying station on the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska on June 30, 2016. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

A drift boat is parked near the Copper River Seafoods buying station on the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska on June 30, 2016. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)