The Alaska Board of Fisheries wrapped up their 2020 meetings on Upper Cook Inlet salmon proposals last week with a clear indication that sport and personal-use fisheries take precedence over commercial fisheries in the area.
Between opening a new personal use dipnet fishery in the Susitna River, higher escapement goals for sockeye and king salmon in the Kenai River, and numerous new restrictions on both the drift and setnet fleets, commercial salmon fishing in Upper Cook Inlet is going to be swimming upstream to stay viable.
Several in the industry decried the political nature of the decisions, with former Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Jeff Fox going so far as to call the department “corrupt.”
For example, ADF&G commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lange attended a meeting of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission on Dec. 16 to strategize ways to restrict the drift and setnet fleets. BOF members John Wood and Israel Payton also attended and reportedly assisted in writing some of the proposals that were mostly adopted at the meetings, and did not recuse themselves from the discussions or voting.
According to the minutes of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Council meeting, Vincent-Lange said that one of his biggest challenges was that he had limited tools to “control” the drift fleet. Council member Howard Delo asked what kinds of tools he had, and Vincent-Lange replied that he may be able to restrict how deep the drift fleet fishes their gear, giving them something less than a 12-hour opening and restricting areas.
Delo also asked whether the commissioner could extend the Kenai River dipnet fishery into August; the Commissioner replied that he could possibly do it through an emergency order but was reluctant to do so.
Vincent-Lange acknowledged that there is supposedly a commercial harvest priority in the Fisheries Management Plan, but Board of Fish member Wood asked what would happen if that priority were eliminated, and Vincent-Lange replied, “We wouldn’t be concerned to have additional openings; we would manage for a (personal use) fishery like we did this year (2019).”
Board member Payton commented that he would work on public outreach to get more Mat-Su Borough residents to sign up to comment at the BOF meetings, noting “it is very important to build relationships with the BOF members,” according to the meeting minutes .No commercial fishing groups have reported any similar offers of help from Vincent-Lange or any Board of Fish members.
One issue that comes up repeatedly with regard to managing the fishery is escapement, or over-escapement.
Former area management biologist Fox filed three petitions with the Board prior to the meeting, arguing against the models used to determine projected run strength and contending that escapement goals are far too high for nearly every monitored system in Upper Cook Inlet for both king and sockeye salmon.
In the petitions, he urged the Board to “reject the escapement goal recommendations for Kenai River Late Run Sockeye Escapement Goal as a nonsensical analysis of the data in what can only be assessed as yet another ridiculous attempt to raise the goal to unsustainable levels.”
With regard to king salmon, Fox’s petition also maintains that king salmon goals are set too high, pointing to what has happened with the Deshka River kings.
He said that the department determined that the Deshka king salmon goal was set too high; for every four fish put into the system only one returned, due to over-escapement.
“That’s kind of a failure; you’re expected to get four back.”
Fox said the goal was lowered, but gradually crept back up.
“Basically, what they’re going to do now is crash everything,” Fox said. “They keep talking about this period of ‘low productivity’ for king salmon, but in reality, what it might be is that they’re just over-escaping every single system in the state.”
Fox said that allocation is the Board of Fish’s prerogative, as long as they follow other laws. Here, they didn’t follow their own sustainable fisheries policy or the escapement goal policy, Fox said.
“The department is supposed to tell them where (Maximum Sustained Yield) is, and where 90 percent of MSY is on either side of it,” Fox said. “Instead, they set up these goals for allocation. The department has no business allocating. They keep saying they’re set up for MSY, but they’re not.”
He commented on the cyclical nature of the current management plans, saying, “you have a lot of fish, but there’s no harvest, and then you don’t get very many fish, and that few fish produce a lot of fish, and then you don’t allow them to be harvested.”
“They’re setting the escapement goal so high that no one can fish, except catch and release.”
There are very real concerns that the new management strategies and attitudes will lead to the closing of some of the few processors still open for business to buy Upper Cook Inlet salmon.
In his public comments to the Board, Paul Shadura II, a setnetter who has served on the board of Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and is currently vice-chair of the Kenai/Soldotna ADF&G Advisory Committee, warned “Board members should acknowledge that actions that they take today will affect the lives of many, destroy the economy of many communities, add to the destruction of our state’s economy, cause many entities to become insolvent and create a social demise in our Alaskan communities.”
He also told the Board, “The processing industry will be severely hindered and forced into consolidating, processing remotely or closing as the result of your actions.
“Family businesses, small businesses that have been in existence for decades will no longer exist. Support industries will no longer be able to remain in business. Small communities on the Kenai Peninsula will be injured and the cumulative effects will affect the Kenai Peninsula Borough in a significantly negative manner.
“Board members should take caution in enacting so many critical changes in such a short time span and consider how previous Boards minimized regulatory changes so as not to seriously injure so many entities.”
That apparently fell on deaf ears.
Matt Haakenson, fleet manager at Pacific Star seafoods in Kenai, told KTUU News, “Where one decision might affect setnetters or another might affect gillneters or another might affect area, we have a piece of every part of that and that affects us as a whole.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these decisions lead to some of the processors closing their doors this summer,” Haakenson said.
“Lowering volume decreases our efficiency, and we’re looking at a way to make the best of what we have. And we’re committed to the industry, we’re committed to local businesses and the people who depend on this. Our goal is to make this sustainable and to be here as long as we can and do good business in the state,” he said.
Cristy Fry is a commercial fisherman and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.