KRSA comments on Alaska Board of Fishery decision to deny Emergency Petition to open the east side set net commercial fishery

The Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) today considered a series of emergency petitions submitted to the Board from east side set netters. The set netters were asking the BOF to reopen fishing that has been closed to protect late-run Kenai River king salmon.

The emergency petitions stated that without reopening the commercial set net fishery, too many sockeye salmon will escape into the Kenai River and threaten future production. They believe that sockeye could be harvested through a variety of reconfigured fisheries with only a very small number of late-run king salmon killed in the process and that this level of king salmon mortality is an acceptable price to pay for opportunity to harvest sockeye.

After extensive discussion, the BOF declined to hear any of the emergency petitions at this time. Here are some of the specifics about the emergency petition process and the BOF discussion that took place.

The BOF emergency petition process includes three steps; the first requires that at least two Board members must vote to consider the petition. If two members do not vote in the affirmative then the emergency petition is not heard. If two members vote to consider then a meeting is held like the one today. At the meeting the BOF must then decide whether the petition addresses what the state defines as an “emergency.”

In order for the BOF to take action on a petition it must first make a finding of emergency. In accordance with AS 44.62.270 and the Joint Board Petition Policy (5 AAC 96.625), emergencies will be held to a minimum and are rarely found to exist. In this section, an emergency is an unforeseen, unexpected event that either threatens a fish or game resource, or an unforeseen, unexpected resource situation where a biologically allowable resource harvest would be precluded by delayed regulatory action, and such delay would be significantly burdensome to the petitioners because the resource would be unavailable in the future. Making a finding of an emergency is the Board’s responsibility but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) provides comments and recommendations to the BOF. If a finding of an emergency is made then the third step would be for the BOF to address the specifics of the petition.

At today’s meeting the BOF declined to make a finding of an emergency as defined above and voted not to further address the petitions.

ADFG provided their assessment of the merits of one of the petitions to the BOF in a letter transmitted to the BOF Chair on July 23, 2012, which can be found at the ADFG Board website –
ADFG’s assessment summarized the season to date and noted that the minimum escapement objective for late-run Kenai River king salmon will not be achieved in 2012. The in-river goal (sonar goal) for late-run Kenai River sockeye salmon and the optimal escapement goal (OEG) for late-run Kenai River sockeye are expected to be exceeded. (See recent KRSA Blog on Kenai sockeye math). ADFG summarizes that the situation we face today “may” meet the definition of emergency.

Since this issue played out this morning KRSA provides the following comments:

1) KRSA sees merit in the emergency petition process, but agrees with the BOF decision today that favoring these requests would increase the conflict now in progress and result in the harvest of king salmon that could not be rationalized based on management of the fisheries to date. Addressing the emergency petition criteria is a deliberative process. BOF member Vince Webster eloquently pointed out today that king salmon conservation issues have been discussed statewide, in Cook Inlet and for the Kenai for more than a decade, and that the king salmon management plan ADFG is following this year has been on the books for more than two decades.
2) From the moment that ADFG realized that the minimum escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon would not be achieved through this point in the 2012 season, the management priority has been to put every available king salmon into the river and on the spawning grounds. Since the minimum goal is still not going to be achieved, KRSA supports maintaining the priority of putting every fish on the spawning grounds.
3) Going over the upper end of the sockeye in-river (sonar) goal is not a significant issue when compared to failing to meet the minimum escapement goal for late-run kings. The in-river goal is an allocative target that includes fish to be harvested by the sport fishery above the sonar in addition to the fish needed for spawning.
4) Going over the sockeye spawning escapement goal is an issue from the perspective of lost harvest opportunity during 2012, but is not a biological threat to the system. Current projections indicate that the optimum escapement goal might be met or slightly exceeded. ADFG testimony this morning affirmed that no Kenai sockeye escapement has ever failed to replace itself and modest overages will have a negligible effect on future yields.
5) If going over the in-river sockeye goal is such a problem, then ADFG could have moved earlier in July to increase the harvest potential of the personal use fishery and the bag and possession limit in the sport fishery. The sport bag could also have been increased it from three to more than six. It must not be that big a problem when ADFG has not used the tools available to harvest sockeye with no impact on kings.
6) In the fall of 2011, KRSA submitted an Agenda Change Request (ACR) asking the BOF to put the issue of the Late-Run Kenai River King Salmon management plan on its agenda in light of continuing king salmon conservation concerns. At that time, the Department assured the Board that it had the appropriate tools in the toolbox to effectively deal with instances of low abundance of king salmon returning to the Kenai River. Based on this discussion, the BOF decided to reject KRSA’s ACR request to address late-run Kenai River king salmon management outside the regular three year cycle for Upper Cook Inlet issues.
7) Last year the commercial fishing industry organizations and individuals within the east side set net community opposed KRSA’s ACR to place this issue on the agenda for BOF deliberation prior to the next regular cycle meeting in 2014. Failure to proactively address this year’s combination of low king and high sockeye runs with effective means of limiting king harvest substantially exacerbated this year’s management challenges in the east side set net fishery.
8 KRSA wants the issues surrounding the management of Kenai River king salmon to be heard by the BOF as soon as possible, certainly before next year’s fishing season, but comprehensibly, with a complete public process in place and the best available data in front of everyone. This fall KRSA will once again submit an ACR to place the issue of Kenai River king salmon management on this year’s BOF agenda after the season, to give all members of our community the opportunity to engage in the public discussion regarding the complex set of fisheries management issues surrounding the conservation and management of Kenai River king salmon.
9) A number of questions will warrant careful consideration in this process:
a. What tools are available for ADFG to step down the harvest (kings) potential of the set net fishery? Currently the only tool in the fisheries management toolbox is the on / off switch. They either fish or they’re on the beach. Fishing the east side set net fishery has almost always been an all or none situation. Are their special strategies that would effectively minimize the king harvest?
b. If going over the in-river sockeye goal is such a problem, then why did ADFG wait until late July to increase the harvest potential of the personal use fishery and why did they wait so long to increase the bag and possession limit in the sport fishery and then only increase it from three to six? Other alternatives besides the set net fishery were available to harvest sockeye with no impact on kings.
c. Does meeting the minimum escapement goal for one important species trump exceeding the upper goal for another in all cases or are there appropriate compromises to be made? Earlier this season the sport fishery for early-run king salmon in the Kenai River was closed to protect an estimated 25 fish when ADFG determined that the minimum escapement goal was not going to be met. If saving 25 kings is critical for sustainability then can we risk killing any kings in a late season set net opening?
d. What is ADFG’s ability to assess the abundance of king salmon bound back to the Kenai River, and what changes in the king salmon management plan are needed to account for the new methodology in tracking fish counts.
10) BOF Chair Karl Johnstone seemed to agree today when he summarized his thoughts on the emergency petitions by stating, “We are not going to solve this problem unless industry participates in the solution.” The BOF decided this issue will not be resolved in a day, and that we need the commercial industry to come forth in conjunction with ADFG with a list of management tools that can be researched and tested for use in order to effectively minimize the harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon.