The first meeting of the Upper Cook Inlet Task Force generated questions about allocation issues, marine mortality, historical catch rates and the overall health of salmon in the inlet.
Board of Fisheries members Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna and Vince Webster of King Salmon co-chaired the meeting that focused on defining the scope of the Upper Cook Inlet king salmon problem and looked for suggestions both from task force members and a room full of affected users.
Webster said he joined the task force because he has been “tight” on approving petitions and agenda change requests to the Board of Fisheries.
“What I think they do, they take the public out of the process,” Webster said. “It became apparent that the board wanted to do something to help the setnetters this coming year and a task force was a way to allow more input from the public.”
Kluberton told task force members they would meet once a month with the goal of having their ideas together for the statewide finfish meeting for the Board of Fisheries in March.
“Whatever written products this group comes up with, it would be ideal to have those cast in stone and ready to submit to the department on March 5,” Kluberton said.
After the introductions, task force members spent more than a half an hour discussing a new escapement goal for king salmon in the Kenai River.
The current escapement goal range of 17,800 to 35,700 is an estimate based on a target strength sonar, a piece a technology the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has discredited as an accurate assessment of run strength.
A new DIDSON-based escapement goal is expected to be available in mid-January for public review.
Kevin Delaney, a retired Fish and Game biologist who holds one of the sportfishing seats on the task force, said he did not want to wait until January for the new escapement goal and would rather tackle uncertainty about the process head-on.
“I, for one, would really invite the department to bring us into this discussion right away in December. Let’s talk about where you are and what the issues are with developing an escapement goal,” Delaney said.
Kluberton said he did not think it was necessary to have the escapement numbers immediately when the task force was trying to determine how to react when it looked as though those numbers would not be met.
“I’m a little uncomfortable dominating the discussion with that because, my idea is that at some point we’re going to hit a problem regardless of what the number is,” Kluberton said.
“When we get to that point, what do we do? I think if we come into it from that point as we move forward and start looking at the ideas of how we’re going to react … I think we can have our discussion and move forward.”
The task force heard an explanation of the Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan and how the 2012 fishing season worked from staff at Fish and Game and then heard from audience members.
After hearing from sportfishermen who said the setnetters should not be in the water, and setnetters who disputed that statement, Webster began asking audience members if they had specific recommendations for what the task force should be studying.
“Let’s get right down to the nuts and bolts here,” Webster said.
“What we want is, if the same thing happens as last year and the department chooses to close you down, what would you like to see happen?”
Kluberton said the recommendations from the audience and other board members, as well as requests for information from Fish and Game would be compiled in a task force website through the current Board of Fisheries website.
All requests for information from Fish and Game, regarding the task force, would be run through the board chairs and then, if available, posted on the site.
“We’re going to look for what information we need that we’re going to splash out on the website so everyone is looking at the same thing,” he said.
While he didn’t have an exact date available, Kluberton said the website should be available before the next meeting on Dec. 14.
As he spoke, Kluberton held a thick stack of information requests and notes he’d taken during the meeting.
The purpose of the first meeting, Kluberton said, was to define the scope of the problem and Fish and Game staff did not yet know what information to prepare.
“We’ll give them some marching orders and based on the conversations … I’m sure they’ll be better prepared next time,” he said.
“You begin to get the sense of the massive organization that goes into a full board meeting … we’re all sitting there with thousands of pages of documentation that those guys work all year to prepare.”
Audience member and guided sportfisherman Tom Corr stood up and listed off several things that the task force should look at including in-river restrictions on boats and fishing periods.
After the meeting, he said he’d been guiding since 1983 and has heard many of the same allocation arguments.
Despite questions about the marine life of the fish and how much of a factor local fishermen could have on a statewide downturn of king salmon, Corr said fishermen should still address local problems that contribute to declines.
“If we’re not the problem, let’s say it is the North Pacific pollock fishery that’s killing most of the kings and there’s not enough coming back, that may be, but we may be the ones that tip it over,” Corr said. “They may be the bigger problem, but we may put the last bullet in it.”
Rashah McChesney is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.