Proposals revisit Cook Inlet fish battles

Deadlines have passed for proposals to the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

The proposal book, now under review, is stuffed with 499 pages that largely carry over the battles fought in the 2014 meeting, when the two-week Board of Fisheries marathon gave way to new rules for the Kenai River management plans that added fuel to the so-called Cook Inlet “fish wars.”

The book is currently under review for the 166 proposals submitted.

More than a dozen proposals look to modify or entirely repeal the Kenai River Late Run King Salmon Management Plan and the Kenai River Late Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan.

The current late run king salmon plan include restrictions on commercial sockeye fishing and sport fishery bait usage when the department projects an in-river run of less than 22,500 fish. The late run sockeye plan, which begins after the sport fishery closes on July 31, restricts the commercial setnet fleet to 36 hours through Aug. 15 if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects a king salmon escapement of less than 22,500 fish.

Commercial fishermen largely resent the August sockeye rules and have been restricted by them to some degree in each of the last three years since they were adopted in 2014. However, ADFG used its emergency management authority to allow a 12-hour setnet opener on Aug. 9 after using the allowed 36 hours for the month in the previous week in order to keep late run sockeye from exceeding the in-river goal for the Kenai River.

Some fishermen say the August restrictions are a de facto optimum escapement goal. While ADFG sets the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, the board may set optimum escapement goals, or OEG. An OEG may not be lower than the sustainable escapement goal, but the board may choose a higher range for reasons such as passing more fish to in-river users.

“The current provisions in 5 AAC 21.359(e) and (f), which were adopted in 2014, have essentially created an optimal escapement goal (OEG) for Kenai River late-run king salmon bore disproportionately by the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery,” wrote Joel Doner. “The current management plan places the entire burden of conservation for this stock in August solely on the set gillnet fishery.”

Because the Kenai River is managed with a sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon, commercial fishermen wonder why the number comes up at all.

“There is no biological reason or data, that can justify for this number,” wrote Gary Hollier in his proposal. “22,500 puts unnecessary restrictions on the ESSN (East Side setnet) fishery. In the Kenai-East Forelands sections, where in some years up to 25 percent of their harvest can occur in August, the current regulation is very devastating. If 15,000 is the minimum goal, and the minimum escapement goal is projected, why are there any time restrictions put on the set net fleet?”

The Anchorage Advisory Committee, one of dozens around the state that make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries, wants to decouple the restrictions on commercial sockeye harvest for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers if the use of bait is prohibited in the Kenai River for king salmon.

“Allowing ADFG to independently use the 36 hours in each beach will make meeting the objective of maximizing sockeye salmon harvest more effective, and thus, more efficient,” wrote the committee.

Elements of the August plan, said others, have tied ADFG management’s hands with the 36-hour limit.

“The restrictions in place are too static and will not allow any flexibility to managers,” wrote Paul Shadura, spokesperson for South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s Association, or SOKI. “The question of pairing is not fundamentally possible in a fisheries with so many different moving parts.”

Not only is the August plan unmanageable, others said, but a clear violation of ADFG’s constitutional charge to manage fisheries to ensure maximum yield.

“The current version of 5 AAC21.360 and 5AAC21.365 set gillnet fishery management plans are in violation of the constitutional mandate and does not allow adaptive in-season management,” wrote the board’s Central Peninsula Advisory Committee, which also asks repeal the optimum escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.4 million for sockeye. “The result has been gross annual over-escapements and annual loss of harvest in the tune of millions of salmon and tens of millions of dollars.”

The Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association, an industry group of Cook Inlet drift net fishermen, notes that sockeye have indeed surpassed the upper end of the goal the majority of the most recent years.

“The Kenai River late-run sockeye have exceeded the inriver goal for seven of the last 10 years and the Kasilof River sockeye have exceeded the (biological escapement goal) for nine of the last 10 years,” wrote UCIDA, which also wants to revise the Central District drift plan.

Personal use fisheries have a wealth of proposals in the queue as well, asking for expanded hours and zones and restricted hours and zones.

Rich Koch, city manager of Kenai, wants to repeal the ability of ADFG to open dipnetting to 24 hours by emergency order, saying the city has enough trouble cleaning up the normal dip net season.

“There are inherent safety conflicts between personal use fishery participants and the operation of heavy equipment in a confined area during a dark period of the night/morning, during 24 hour openings of the fishery,” wrote Koch.

While commercial fishing representatives are trying to repeal some 2014 restrictions, guided angler representatives will try to enact even more at the 2017 meeting.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a guided angler industry group, wants to limit East Side set netters to 29-inch mesh, in addition to increasing the daily bag limit of coho salmon to three after the set net fishery closes in August and expanding boat usage further upstream.

“Research conducted at the request of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and widespread experience of set net fishermen both demonstrate that fishing with shallower set net gear will more selectively harvest large numbers of sockeye with reduced harvest of king salmon,” reads the proposal. “Most fishermen currently use 45 inch mesh depth gear. A maximum net depth of 29 meshes is currently thought to provide the best efficiency for harvesting sockeye while avoiding kings.”

KRSA also wants to establish an optimum escapement goal of 15,000 to 40,000 for king salmon and expand Kenai sockeye restrictions to the Kasilof Special Harvest Area.

“Higher in-river runs produce tremendous sport fishery benefits with no significant impact on future production or yield for escapements up to 40,000,” the proposal reads. “The proposed upper goal of 40,000 includes the historical average escapement and maintains high production and yield according the Department’s recent escapement goal analysis.

“Returns from all historical escapements below 40,000 exceeded replacement and produced substantial yields. There was no significant correlation with returns for escapements between 22,500 and 40,000.”