King closures ‘devastating’ to setnetters, industry rep says

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game took the unprecedented move to shut down most king salmon fishing in most areas of Cook Inlet, including preemptively closing the setnet fishery in Upper Cook Inlet for the entire season.

Due to the continued depressed runs of both early and late Kenai River king salmon, as well as other under-performing king salmon runs around Cook Inlet, ADF&G announced this week that there will be no king salmon fishing in freshwater, as well as new limits on the popular king salmon troll fishery in Kachemak Bay, in addition to the closure of the setnet fishery.

Ken Coleman, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisheries Association, which represents the setnet fleet, called the move “devastating.”

“This is extraordinary in and of itself to close a fishery before there was any experience of lack of fish. Fish and Game is going off a pre-season estimate, which doesn’t reach the threshold of the optimum escapement goal of 15,000 kings, so they’re calling off the season for all user groups: guided sport, sport, dipnetters who might catch one now and again, and the collateral damage is in the late-run Kenai salmon management plan.”

To be clear, the dipnet fishery will not be shut down, dipnetters will just be unable to retain any king salmon caught, and the sport fisheries will still take place under those same rules. Coleman said that the shutdown of the entire east side setnet fishery is calamitous, compounded by several years of disasters.

“For us, since 2018, we’ve filed for four economic disasters, two of which have already been adjudicated somewhere in the funding pipeline, and this will be another one, total economic devastation, it’s really sad. This fishery is an old, established part of the economy here on the central Peninsula. When we don’t fish, people and merchants feel it, and these fishermen are so devastated,” he said.

Coleman said that what are called “paired restrictions” by the industry, set up by the Board of Fisheries, are not really that.

“Paired restrictions, if one (fishery) gets closed or there’s a restriction in one, there’s a restriction in the other realm, and in this case if the king salmon season is closed then the setnetters get closed as well. Of course, the fly in the ointment is that the guided sport and the sport fishermen, if they are targeting kings they just pivot to reds or silvers and keep right on going, and the dipnet fishery keeps on going, and the drift fishermen keep on going, and everybody’s happy, and we’re the ones left holding the bag.”

He added that the drift fleet caught 300 kings last year, but the setnet fleet only caught 32 before the fishery was shut down.

“(Last year) they kept fishing and we got shut down. They may get impacted because of this, but there’s nothing in the management plan relative to this.”

He acknowledged that the drift fleet has its own headaches.

“They’ve got their issues too with the Economic Exclusion Zone, they’ve got their kettle of fish.”

He added that he hopes the drift fleet is able to get more fishing time to stem the overwhelming tide of over-escapement, which last season saw the Kasilof River alone get an escapement 200 percent over the upper end of the goal.

In addition to catches by the drift fleet, Coleman said there is a lot of hypocrisy in the rest of the management scheme.

He said he told ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent Lange, “It’s implausible for me to believe that you shut the setnetters down over 32 (kings), but at any given time in July, from the first to the 20th, you’ve got 15,000 people in the mouth of the (Kenai) River.

“That’s a fact, you’ve got another 200-400 boats in the river up to the Bridge Access, and you’ve got a fully prosecuted sockeye, silver, trout fishery going on in the main stem … and we’re supposed to believe that none of them are catching king salmon.”

He said getting shut down has been the rule, not the exception, since at least 2018. That year the setnetters filed for disaster relief, and haven’t seen a dime, but added that the federal process is more streamlined than the state process, and that even if or when the relief comes through, it won’t begin to solve the problem.

“It’s not a ‘make whole’ remedy, typically it’s between 25 and 50 percent of what you might have made. That helps with start-up costs for the next year, which for beach fishermen is considerable compared to some of the boat fishermen. It’s been tough.”

Coleman added that he doesn’t feel like the current management or politics in the State of Alaska is behind Cook Inlet fishermen.

“This is a state government with the current governor, who doesn’t particularly like Cook Inlet. That goes from lower Cook Inlet seiners to the Upper District close to Anchorage.” He said that even if the early escapement numbers look good, he doesn’t have any confidence that with the current administration it will make a difference.

“They’re so worried about not making this goal, if the numbers look good and they’re wrong, I can see this governor and this commissioner saying ‘no, no, we’ll just wait it out, we need to get that number.’”

He added that when you do that, without taking into account input from biologists, the whole resource suffers, especially the sockeye that have been chronically massively over-escaped.

Cristy Fry can be reached at