Alaska Department of Fish and Game Withholds Support for Full Hearing of Kenai River King Salmon Issues by the Alaska Board of Fisheries

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) appears to be recommending against a full hearing of the Kenai River king salmon issues by the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) before the 2013 season. Such opposition is surprising, given the aftermath of the 2012 Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) salmon season, which saw the smallest return of late-run Kenai River king salmon on record, a near total closure of both the sport and commercial set net fisheries, the convening of a high level scientific panel for statewide Chinook issues and a passionate request for a Federal Disaster declaration by Governor Parnell.

In response to a series of public requests, called Agenda Change Requests (ACRs), to the BOF, including one from Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) and others from participants in the commercial set net fishery, to conduct a full review of Kenai king issues, ADFG appears to favor only a narrow review of their new sonar assessment and the king salmon abundance data it provides. ADFG makes recommendations to the BOF, but it is the responsibility of the BOF to make the final determination of what goes on its agenda.

These ACRs will be considered by the BOF during their fall work session to be held in Anchorage, October 9-11, 2012. After the record low abundance of late-run Kenai River king salmon in 2012, KRSA has put forth a request for a full review of Kenai issues to include ADFG’s new sonar assessment and to discuss the now obvious shortcomings in the current codified salmon management plan.

One major gap that has become obvious this year is that the present management plan covers only the month of July. The late-run of king salmon is present at least from July 1 – August 15 on UCI beaches and in the lower Kenai River. On years of low returns like we have experienced of late this leaves open the question of how the BOF would like to see the burden of conservation implemented in the month of August, when up to 35 percent of the return now occurs.

Another issue is throughout most of the month of July while run strength is highly uncertain, particularly at the present low levels of abundance, ADFG now finds itself in the position of choosing winners and losers by allocating fish between the sport and commercial set net fisheries on an almost daily basis. The responsibility to allocate fish, however, is by law reserved as a function of the BOF, not ADFG.

An example of this is found in 2012 when, in mid-July, with the sport fishery restricted to catch and release, ADFG opened the commercial set net fishery for only one period in an effort to harvest the abundant sockeye salmon, which resulted in more late-run king salmon harvested in that one commercial opener than were killed by the sport fishery during its entire season. The only thing that prevented ADFG from opening the commercial set net fishery for a series of periods earlier in the 2012 season was a later than normal return of sockeye to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. With so much economy at stake, the BOF has an obligation to review the management actions implemented by ADFG at these low levels of king abundance.

On the other hand, some members of the commercial set net community, which has historically opposed any management measures other than an all or none, time and area approach, now seem genuinely interested in discussing regulatory “tools” that could be used by ADFG to step down their efficiency in an effort to minimize harvest of king salmon. Members of the set net community are also interested in experimenting with alternative methods and means. While it is unclear where these discussions may lead, it would be truly unwise to squander the opportunity to talk while the pain of the 2012 season is still fresh in people’s minds.

The forecast for 2013 is for another year of low abundance of Kenai king salmon. The BOF cannot wave a magic wand and change that, but by meeting and undertaking a full review of Kenai king salmon issues they can and should accomplish four things:
1) Adopt ADFG’s new sonar goal in the codified salmon management plan so that everyone knows what the escapement objective is and how it is calculated.
2) Make achieving that goal ADFG’s highest priority during the time period July 1 to August 15.
3) Determine which step-down restrictions will be applied and how the step-down restrictions will be paired between the sport and commercial set net fisheries. Adopt these into code as a 2013 interim management plan.
4) Embrace the development of alternative strategies for the future of the commercial set net fishery, strategies designed to minimize the harvest of late-run king salmon.

In the state’s request for a Federal disaster declaration for Upper Cook Inlet, Governor Parnell wrote:
The Kenai River Chinook salmon run saw steep decline in returns for 2012. The stock is managed to provide a range of escapement into the river to ensure future sustainability. In 2012 the total run was well below expectation and fisheries that harvest the stock were tightly constrained to help provide for escapement.… I cannot overstate the importance of fisheries to the economy of the Upper Cook Inlet region. Throughout this area, impacts are being felt by commercial fishermen, sport guides, fish processors, and those who sell fuel, tackle, supplies, groceries and lodging. Local governments will feel the impact of lost revenue to their economic base. The Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries affected by the decline of the Chinook salmon runs are crucial to the economic vitality of the region and the well-being of Alaskan.
That sounds to us like a good reason for the BOF to accept the ACRs aimed at a full review of Kenai king salmon issues and impacts.