Cook Inlet task force focus was meant to be on king salmon conservation concerns, not sockeye

Frequent complaints put forth by commercial fishing advocates during the winter meetings of the Cook Inlet king salmon task force had nothing to do with king salmon, but instead were focused on sockeye salmon. The sockeye complaints can be boiled down to two components:

1. The current Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plans, specifically the windows provisions in the Kenai River sockeye plan, do not allow east side set netters to fish when sockeye are abundant on the beaches, and this happened in 2012 with foregone sockeye harvest opportunity; and,
2. Foregone harvests of sockeye by east side set netters (ESSN) in 2012 led to another season of “over escapement” of Kenai River sockeye, which should be of greater conservation concern to all interested parties than that of not meeting the minimum escapement goal for Kenai River kings.

Let’s examine closely the merits of this line of reasoning by Cook Inlet commercial fishing advocates. In 2012, both king and sockeye returns to the Kenai River were late, as were salmon runs across the state, most likely to due to the unusual record setting snowfall during the prior winter. In 2012, the opening date for Kenai section of the ESSN was Monday, July 9, but that regular period was closed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) due to conservation concerns with low king salmon abundance. The second regular opener of that week, Thursday, July 12, was also closed, but this closure was also due to low sockeye salmon abundance, as clearly noted in the ADFG announcement for Emergency Order Number 10:

The current cumulative passage estimate of sockeye salmon in the Kenai River through July 10, 2012 is 56,000 fish. The average cumulative passage through July 10 in the Kenai River in the previous 10 years is 93,000 fish. In the Kasilof River, the cumulative passage through July 10, 2012 is 87,000 fish. The average cumulative passage in the Kasilof River from the previous 10 years is 125,000 fish.

Thus ADFG had sockeye conservation concerns for both the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers in addition to those for king salmon. As of Friday, July 13, less than 100,000 sockeye salmon had entered both the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. Over that weekend (July 14 – 15), a large pulse of sockeye moved its way up the east side beaches and entered both river systems, with 315,000 entering the Kenai and about 55,000 coming into the Kasilof.

During the king salmon task force meetings, a frequent commercial fishing “talking point” focused on the “missed” harvest opportunity by east side set netters on this large pulse of sockeye, due to the hands of local area fishery manager supposedly being tied unnecessarily by the current management plans (i.e. windows). However, the windows provision in the sockeye plan had nothing to do with the decision by the local ADFG commercial fishery manager to not fish on this large pulse of sockeye as it moved up the east side beaches. During the task force meetings, more than once the local ADFG commercial fishery manager stated that he intentionally chose not to fish on that pulse of sockeye because so few had entered the river systems up to that point in the season, and he needed to bank this pulse of sockeye to ensure that the minimum escapement numbers for both the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye would be met.

Thus the east side set net fishery missed fishing opportunity early in the season not only because of king salmon conservation concerns, but also for sockeye salmon conservation concerns. The frequent commercial broadsides against windows as the reason that ADFG decide to not fish on that pulse of fish are seriously flawed, but what is of equal or greater concern is that they continued to be hurled even after the local ADFG commercial fishery manager explained in detail several times the reasons for such management action.

The second frequent yet erroneous complaint heard from commercial fishing advocates was that in 2012 the Kenai River had another over escapement of sockeye salmon, and that going over the upper end of the sockeye escapement goal should be an equal if not greater conservation concern for all who care about Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. Here is another instance when such claims by commercial interests turn up to be unfounded as it relates to the 2012 Kenai River sockeye escapement and just plain dangerous when applied to king salmon, which is a topic for a future blog.

In 2012, ADFG forecast the Kenai River sockeye run to be about 4, 026,000, and the final return came in about ten percent higher at 4,472,000. The Optimal Escapement Goal (OEG) is 700,000 to 1,400,000. The final sonar count for Kenai River sockeye was 1,581,555, from which the in-river sport harvest (determined from the Statewide Harvest Survey) above the sonar is subtracted to get the final escapement. Assuming that the sport harvest above the sonar is at least the 300,000 seen in 2011 (both years had similar angler effort for the sockeye sport fishery above the sonar) the final escapement for Kenai River sockeye in 2012 will be most likely less than 1,281,555, just above the Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) range of 700,000 to 1,200,000. This means that in 2012, Kenai River sockeye escapement met the OEG, and will be at or just above the SEG. The Kasilof River fell within its OEG range of 160,000 to 390,000, coming in at 375,000. And this in spite of very limited time provided to the east side set net fishery, and no set net fishing on the largest pulse of sockeye to enter the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers in 2012 as noted above.

In 2012, harvests by the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery, almost exclusively by the central district drift fleet, generated the third highest ex-vessel value in the past ten years, supplied most seafood processors with an expected number of sockeye based on the size of the return, and provided sockeye escapements into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers within their respective escapement goal ranges. It is extremely unfortunate that both the in-river sport and east side set net fisheries had to endure restriction and closure due to king salmon conservation concerns. Trying to divert attention away from legitimate king salmon conservation concerns with false and misleading narratives about sockeye issues do not in any manner help the dialogue about how to prevent similar losses of fishing opportunity in subsequent years.