Mat-Su blames drift fishery for poor runs



Bruce Knowles, chairman of the Mat-Su borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, is urging sport fishermen to call Gov. Sean Parnell and tell him to prohibit fishery managers from following the Upper Cook Inlet fishery management plan set forth by the Board of Fisheries during the upcoming salmon season.

In a guest commentary piece in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Knowles writes that “mixed stocks (bound for the Mat-Su) are to a large extent sacrificed to the commercial drift fishery, directly causing the failure of upper Cook Inlet returns, and limiting the ability of Alaskans being able to fish or dipnet for their winter food supply.”

He says that because the 2013 run is anticipated to be around 6.7 million sockeye with a  harvest of 4.9 million fish, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will be able to implement the 4.6 million fish trigger that is authorized in the Kenai River Sockeye Management Plan, which potentially greatly reduces the number of restrictions on the drift fleet in order to prevent major over-escapement in the Kenai River.

Pat Shields, area management biologist for ADF&G, disputes Knowles’ claim that the drift fishery is “directly” causing the failure of upper Cook Inlet returns, and points to other problems in those drainages, such as pike.

“There is no doubt, we can’t quantify it by a numerical percentage, but pike are having a significant role in the reduction of sockeye salmon out of the Susitna drainage,” Shields said. “We have lakes that are only a few miles apart (on the same river drainage), and one lake is receiving adequate escapement and producing at a fairly normal rate for sockeye salmon, and the lake only a few miles away is not producing sockeye. It may even be entirely devoid of sockeye salmon. The difference is the one that is producing doesn’t have pike, and the one that isn’t producing does have pike. 

“Pike are not native to this part of Alaska, they’ve been introduced to the Susitna drainage, and they are wreaking havoc on sockeye salmon as well as chinook salmon, and most likely coho salmon.”

Knowles’ claim that the drift fleet is the direct cause of reduced runs in the Mat-Su area also is contradicted by his own presentation to the joint Fish and Game Finance Subcommittee of the Alaska Legislature earlier this month.

That presentation, while also targeting the commercial fisheries, listed high-seas bycatch and environmental issues, growing population in the Mat-Su and associated habitat issues, major flooding and invasive species like northern pike, although it did not mention problems with beaver dams restricting out-migration of smolt, which has been a persistent problem in the Susitna drainage, according to Shields.

“I’m not saying it’s all pike, we’re (ADF&G) not willing to only blame pike,” Shields said. “There are some habitat concerns, there are beaver dams. They’ve always been around, and of course we need to be concerned about harvest levels,” he noted.

Shields said that especially in the case of coho salmon, during years of general abundance, Mat-Su streams see good returns, and the drift fleet sees strong catches. In slow years, no one catches as much.

“So the question is, ‘are drifters causing poor runs of coho salmon in northern district streams?’” he asked. “The answer is no, but they do catch coho headed there, and therefore we need to be prepared to take action, restrictive actions, to help meet these escapement objectives.” 

Shields pointed out that simply because ADF&G has the option of increasing the time and area for the drift fleet to fish during strong Kenai sockeye runs, that does not mean they use it. 

“We don’t turn the drift fleet loose seven days a week, not in the central district,” he said. “They’re allowed to fish two days a week out in the central district, and we restrict many of those. We don’t let them fish every Monday and Thursday, not in the central district wide open, regardless of the Kenai (sockeye) run.

“Just because the mandatory restrictions are no longer required by the management plan, that does not mean that the department would not restrict the fishery to conserve stocks that we think may need additional protection.”

The presentation made to the Legislature by Knowles and co-presenter Larry Engles called for the Legislature to increase funding to study run timing and migration patterns.

“What we think might be the ultimate solution for Cook Inlet is to restructure it in a manner that will allow us to be more selective in our harvest, to target more on Kenai and Kasilof, and less on northern bound fish during some years or at certain times,” Engles said.

The department may need to tweak management plans, “but they should be based on science that will allow us to make informed decisions rather than allocative decisions,” he added.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, expressed appreciation that Engles and Knowles brought up other possibilities for declining numbers of salmon in the Mat-Su region during their presentation.

“I’m concerned that we’re saying ‘it’s gotta be somebody else’s fault because their not here,’ when you’ve identified habitat concerns, pike and at-sea problems, so I just want to make sure that we’re rounding out for the entire committee what that is,” Seaton said.

He noted the fact that early-run king salmon returns to the Valley also are weak, and they are not impacted by commercial fisheries.

“If those runs are low, you can’t blame it on the drift fishery, so conceivable other stocks might be encountering other problems besides drift fleet,” he said.

The number to contact Gov. Sean Parnell is (907) 465-3500. 

Bruce Knowle’s opinion piece can be found at

The Mat-Su Fish and Game Commission presentation to the Joint Fish and Game Finance Subcommittee can be found at

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at