On a beach south of the Kenai River, a small crew of setnet anglers have been operating since July 8 a test of selective harvest setnet gear — shorter nets intended to catch “abundant” sockeye while allowing “weaker” king salmon to pass below.
The hope is that by more accurately targeting sockeye salmon, the east side setnet fishery will be able to see opportunity to fish again — even as they this year deal with an unprecedented full season closure.
‘Work of generations’ under threat
On Tuesday last week, Gary Hollier, who owns the site and is running the operation as a subcontractor, said he’s looking for any way to get the east side setnet fishery back in the water. He called the fishery a “work of generations,” something that he’d been a part of for 53 years, something he’d passed on to his children and something they’d passed on to theirs.
Those generations could be seen at the site last week. Hollier directed a crew largely made up of his own family. His daughter Carrie operated a tractor to pull nets from the water and his granddaughter Carmen hoisted salmon longer than her arm up and into a large crate.
Other families, Hollier said, had even more years and tradition in the fishery, describing friends and neighbors who could trace their practice back a century. That’s what he said will be lost if the fishery stays closed. That’s why he’s willing to take steps like shallowing his nets to try to find a way forward.
“Just trying to stay alive,” he said. “Right now we’re beat, we’re done. We’ll never fish another day, I don’t think, under the current regulation.”
In March, a series of 11 Emergency Orders were issued by the State Department of Fish and Game that, among other things, completely closed the east side setnet fishery this season, as well as the Kenai River and Cook Inlet to sport fishing for king salmon. The full closure of the east side setnet fishery, even before it opened, was unprecedented.
The move was triggered by the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan. The department predicted that this year’s Kenai River late run of large king salmon would fail to meet the sustainable escapement goal set by the Board of Fisheries. Per the plan, if fewer than 15,000 king salmon are projected to escape, the fisheries will be closed.
The department in March predicted around 14,000 king salmon. An inseason run summary published July 22 says that prediction has since been revised down to 12,000. As of Monday, per fish counts available from the department, around 5,000 king salmon had been counted by sonar. That number lags behind three of the last four years at the same point in their runs. In each of those years, the escapement goal was not met.
As soon as the closures were announced, Hollier said he reached out to department Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.
“I thought to myself, after 53 years in this business, let’s try to do something to get back in the game,” he said. “In some way, shape or form.”
All eyes on the mesh
Running shallower nets was something Hollier had been doing since 2013 — he said that if he could catch 80% of the sockeye he had been catching while also reducing his king harvest by 50%, “that’s a win.”
The original pitch was for a study at four sites around the fishery, but there wasn’t time or funding to get that off the ground. The test was able to be run on the one site, Hollier’s own, roughly a mile south of the Kenai River’s mouth. The department contracted with Canada-based Kintama Research to conduct the study.
Vincent-Lang in the release announcing the study said that if the test is successful, it “solves a decades-long struggle with a win-win for the resource and all the user groups as well.”
“But make no mistake, at ADF&G conservation is paramount,” he continues. “We will be watching closely with fingers crossed.”
The study is running three nets, placed in different orders and operated both from the beach and from a boat. The three nets are each a different depth, described as mesh. An unrestricted traditional set gillnet would be 45 mesh; the test is based on shallower nets at 29 mesh, 22 mesh and 15 mesh.
Last week, the three nets were spaced out down the beach. As each net was pulled from the water, a contracted observer, Sandy Simons, counted carefully the number of fish caught and their species. Once each net was up on the beach, the crew pulled the salmon away and tossed them into a large waiting container.
No king salmon were caught, but Simons said that when they are caught she measures their length and records details including their condition, where on their physiology they were caught in the net and where on the net they were caught.
All of the salmon caught are being sold by the state, proceeds going to the department’s test fish fund. Hollier is receiving flat payment in his capacity as an employed subcontractor, but is not seeing a profit on the operation.
Before the nets were pulled from the water last Tuesday, Hollier said they’d caught around 6,000 sockeye this year. In that window, nine king salmon had been caught, three successfully released. After the nets were pulled last Tuesday, he said they’d seen around 700 more sockeye — not one king.
In addition to operating the nets and counting the fish caught, the study will also employ telemetry to attempt to describe the way king salmon move through the water. Sensors on the nets track their depth, and Simons said that after the end of the fishing season, the study will build a grid system of acoustic receivers — which they’ll test with dummy tags that can be pulled through the water. If the receivers can accurately detect and track the tags’ locations, the plan is to next year tag real king salmon and learn more about how they move through the waters.
“This is a pilot test fish program to try to fish some select, shallower gear. Hopefully, next summer, after we go to the Board of Fish in February of 2024, we can fish this shallower gear on abundant reds going to the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers,” he said. “Let’s just see what the data shows.”
Fishing for the ‘Hail Mary’
The State Board of Fisheries meets on a three-year rotating cycle, with proposals affecting different areas of the state up for consideration each year. The Upper Cook Inlet, which includes the Kenai River, the Kasilof River and the East Side Setnet Fishery, is set for discussion at the next meeting in February. That meeting is coming four years after Upper Cook Inlet last was discussed, as the board’s schedule was delayed a year in 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s why, Hollier said, they had to do something this summer. If the study began in 2024, its results wouldn’t get in front of the board until 2027. Without changes to the management plan next year, Hollier doesn’t see any hope for the fishery.
“So hopefully the Board of Fish will see some reasoning here and we can get this whole 120-year-old fishery back in the game next summer,” he said. “This is a last Hail Mary from Tom Brady to try to win the game. Brady always wins the game, so we’re gonna win that game.”
More information about fishing regulations and availability can be found at adfg.alaska.gov.