Task force considers changes to Cook Inlet plan

Ten Upper Cook Inlet Task Force members met Monday to address the mountain of data generated since their last meeting, propose changes to salmon management plans and hear from local fishermen.

The day began with a presentation on a draft escapement goal recommendation of 15,000 to 30,000 late-run chinook salmon in the Kenai River.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Chief Fisheries Scientist Bob Clark answered questions about the draft report and how the DIDSON-sonar based goal was developed.

The new escapement goal is based on the department’s DIDSON sonar and will replace the former escapement goal which was based on a target-strength sonar.

The department also plans to move the DIDSON counter upstream to remove tidal influence from factoring into fish counts.

DIDSON sonar will be run both in the current sonar location, near River Mile 8, and in the new sonar location during the 2013 fishing season.

The draft report was sent to five peer reviewers and should be ready for distribution in mid-February Clark said.

Vince Webster, co-chair of the task force, asked members of Fish and Game to explain how they intended to manage the fishery during the next season.

“With this new escapement, counting system, have you guys thought of how it’s going to affect, how you’re going to manage next year?” Webster said. “I think that’s what we need to know so we can make some kind of recommendation. If (the users) … if they don’t know when they’re going to be shut down then what can we do?”

Robert Begich, area biologist, said if the 2013 fishing season is like the 2012 fishing season, there may be differences in the number of days the department would shut down the sport and commercial fisheries, but they would likely still close as the run was not large enough to support harvest.

“The users would like to see in black and white, when is the department going to close us down next year? What do you need to see when you’re going to close it down,” Webster said.

Tom Vania, regional fisheries management coordinator for Cook Inlet, said he would “need a better crystal ball” than the one he has now.

He said the sport fishing division does not have its forecast yet, but that it was likely the 2013 run of chinook salmon would be low.

“We’ve seen all the graphs, we’ve seen all the figures, there’s really nothing right now that tells us we’re going to dramatically come up from that,” he said. “We look at the runs, the yield that was available in the 2012 run it was about 10,000 fish that (were) probably on the table and historic harvest levels are typically around 20,000 fish … in all likelihood 2013 isn’t going to be big enough to produce average runs.”

Vania said knowing what the department knows now, the restrictions would still have been implemented.

“Catch-and-release would have gone into place maybe a day or two later, closure would have been around the same time, again maybe a day or two difference. Going back into the water, going back into the liberalizations may have occurred five or six days earlier because that’s when the fish started coming into the river,” he said.


Management changes recommended

The task force also heard three sets of recommended changes to the management plan from members representing sport fishing and commercial fishing interests.

The East Side Setnet Proposal recommended several changes to the Kenai River Late Run King Salmon Management plan including a suspension of automatic closures to the sport fishery and the setnet fishery when the in-river spawning escapement is less than 15,000 kings as projected between July 15-20.

According to the proposal, the fisheries would not be closed unless the department was not going to meet an optimum escapement goal of 11,000 chinook salmon.

That also would close the personal-use fishery to the retention of chinook according to the setnetter’s proposal.

After the setnetters presentation co-chair Tom Kluberton reminded task force members that any changes to regulation they approved would be subject to a one-year “sunset” provision which means they would expire and the topic would again be addressed in 2014.

Dwight Kramer, a sport fishing representative on the board, also put a proposal out which he said was aimed at protecting the resource but still allowing harvest opportunity.

“I was really bothered by the last two years when people in the community suffered — both the sport fish and the commercial end — then after the fact the department came out with memorandums … upping the final escapement numbers which would have allowed enough harvest for people to have been able to participate fully.”

According to Kramer’s proposal, the in-river king fishery should be started July 1 with no bait to protect early-run king salmon still gathered below the Soldotna bridge.

If, by July 15, late run kings are projected to fall below the department’s sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 king salmon, then the sport fishery would be restricted to no bait or catch-and-release; the East Side Setnet Fishery would be changed to adaptive management with its fishing windows removed and would be opened by emergency order authority to fish when the sockeye came through, according to Kramer’s proposal.

Kramer also suggested changing the department’s sustainable escapement goal to an optimum escapement goal of 13,000 salmon and suggested closing the personal-use fishery to king harvest.

If the department projections fall below 13,000, both fisheries would close according to Kramer’s proposal.

Kevin Delaney, a sportfishing representative on the task force, also put forward a draft proposal that drew criticism from audience members and board members.

Delaney’s proposal recommended step-down restrictions in the setnet fishery — such as removing certain nets during times of low abundance of king salmon — that would mirror restrictions to the sport fishery.

Delaney said he would rather have members of the setnet community develop their own restrictions.

“My objective was really to effect a series of harvest potential reductions across fisheries,” he said. “I am an expert at sport fishing management and I can tell you when you take treble hooks out, when you take bait out, when you go to catch-and-release, when you set aside some specific time and area, it’s going to reduce harvest potential by a certain amount.”


Delaney said he wanted setnetters to figure out how to reduce their harvest potential by similar percentage amounts.


“So far, they’re kind of going ‘uh, we don’t know.’ Well I’m going to keep asking,” Delaney said.


The other part of Delaney’s proposal includes suggesting that Fish and Game manage king salmon conservatively and at the upper end of the spawning range.


“From the data that the department has presented, a credible, scientifically supportable case can be made for anything from about 11,000 spawning king salmon up to about 30,000 spawning king salmon,” he said. “… but what’s clear is that as you get to the lower end, a mistake puts the fish at risk … I know, as an old manager, that there’s imprecision in management, especially in the middle of the season. I want to hedge the bet in such a manner that the fish are put at slightly less risk.”


Delaney said he had not intended to present a proposal during the day’s meeting but was encouraged to share his ideas by the task force co-chairs.


All three proposals will be available on the Upper Cook Inlet Task Force website along with changes made after today’s meeting and other research presented by the Department of Fish and Game.


Kluberton suggested community members use a comment function on the task force’s website to let members know of their concerns.


After several hours of discussion, board members said they felt the day had been productive.


“You know I think, I’ve been doing this since 1976,” Delaney said. “… Today was the most interactive productive discussion I’ve ever seen hosted on this. Honest to god, people did a great job.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.