Voices of the Peninsula: Proactive measures key to king salmon recovery

First, I wish to applaud the decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the king salmon fishery north of Bluff Point effective May 15. This proactive measure to help protect returning king salmon is a decision that has been long overdue. Recent history has shown that reactive closures based upon river escapement do not adequately protect the king salmon runs.

I have been sport fishing king salmon along the eastern shores of Cook Inlet and in the Kenai River since 1977. My late wife and I considered ourselves blessed to have enjoyed the “good” years when king salmon were plentiful. Unfortunately, witnessing the steady decline in the Cook Inlet king salmon fishery over the past several decades has been heartbreaking.

Fishery biologists do not completely understand what is causing the steady decline in the king salmon stocks. What is happening on the high seas is still a mystery and it may be years before they fully understand the factors contributing to the declining number of returning king salmon. Because of those unknowns it is almost impossible to manage that aspect of the king salmon’s life cycle. Instead, we must focus our efforts on doing everything possible to assure that the king salmon that do survive the high seas are protected along their entire journey to the spawning grounds.

In that regard more — much more needs to be done. Additional wide-ranging proactive measures are needed if we are truly serious about the goal of restoring king salmon stocks. These measure must include:

1. Extend the king salmon sport fishing closures to the entirety of Cook Inlet as well as Kachemak Bay from April 15 through Aug. 15. Although this will impact charter boat operators, guides and individual sport fishermen, the current and past situation of reactive management has resulted in a high level of uncertainty for everyone, including the commercial fishermen. Although a relatively small percentage of Cook Inlet king salmon pass through Kachemak Bay, continuing to allow king salmon fishing in Kachemak Bay and areas south will only increase the localized pressure and result in the local harvest of more spawning king salmon. The only exceptions (if any) should be fishing in rivers and streams with a sizable hatchery fishery or a terminal fishery that can be properly controlled and managed.

2. King salmon fishing closures need to be for a period of at least 10 years. From a biological perspective, closures for one or two years are totally inadequate to determine whether or not such measures are beneficial to the overall stock. A full closure for a 10-year period will cover almost two full life cycles of the king salmon. Doing so will provide biologists true data upon which to determine the effect on the overall recovery effort.

3. Change the means by which sockeye salmon are commercially harvested. The east side setnetters have essentially been blocked from fishing for the last three years due to restrictions tied to king salmon river escapement counts. This year they will see a full closure from day one. Similar restriction have also been levied against the west side setnetters in the past. These closures stem directly from the use of nets. Nets indiscriminately catch all but the smallest salmon thereby resulting in the incidental catch of returning king salmon. The only way to stop the incidental catch of kings is to stop the use of nets for commercial fishing. Although this “prohibition on nets” has primarily affected setnetting, unless there is a miraculous recovery of king salmon stocks, similar restriction will be placed upon the drift boat fisheries as well.

4. Instead of commercial nets, the use of fish traps would be a more practical and effective means to harvest sockeye salmon without the incidental catching of king salmon. The thought of fish traps may be alarming and bring back visions of the rape and pillage of our rivers and streams. But this horror of the past can be totally avoided through proper design, oversight and management of fish trap operations. Except for small (primarily non-spawning) king salmon, the design of the traps would allow king salmon to bypass without injury. The harvesting of sockeye salmon could then be managed such that a certain percentage of sockeye are allowed to escape into the river at all times. Managing the traps in this fashion eliminates the incidental king salmon catch and would also temper the sockeye salmon runs in the rivers. The feast or famine red salmon runs of the past would become steady and predictable thereby providing more opportunities for sport fisherman. The fish traps could be managed as a co-op, where fishermen buy into the co-op by relinquishing their current fishing permits. All operating costs would be paid by the co-op and revenues and net profits from sales would be split amongst co-op “shareholders.” Shares could be based upon a fisherman’s historic catch similar to IFQs or some other equitable arrangement. To make this concept work there will also need to be a buyback program funded by the state and/or federal government wherein fishermen who do not opt to become part of the co-op would be compensated for the surrender of their current fishing permits.

5. Prohibit the harvesting of king salmon in the personal-use dipnet fisheries. Also place tighter restrictions on the type of nets allowed to facilitate the safe release of incidental caught king salmon.

These additional proactive measures will provide much needed protection for spawning king salmon from the time they begin to enter Cook Inlet until they reach their spawning grounds. This, in turn, will greatly enhance their chances of recovery. To some these measures may seem extreme. However, given the rapid decline in king salmon returns we are witnessing, extreme measures are exactly what are needed. Without these, recovery is highly unlikely and bountiful king salmon runs of the past will simply be memories.

David R. Eberle is a 50-year Alaska resident and retired engineer. He has lived in the Homer area since 2008.