Primarily and Minimize – Their meaning and implementation in Upper Cook Inlet salmon management. Part Two.

In part one of our discussion on the policy directives of primarily and minimize, we looked at where these important terms came from and in part two we examine what do these terms really mean and how are they implemented.

First let’s look at the term primarily. The late-run king plan states that achieving the desired escapement objective and managing Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon primarily for sport and guided sport fishermen in order to provide the sport and guided sport fishermen with a REASONABLE OPPORTUNITY TO HARVEST THESE SALMON RESOURCES OVER THE ENTIRE RUN, AS MEASURED BY THE FREQUENCY OF IN-RIVER RESTRICTIONS. It is pretty clear that when the BOF included this language in the plan the board’s intent was to ensure that there was enough harvestable late-run king salmon in the river to support a fairly normal sport fishery, which in July means the use of bait and retention.

Another way to measure primarily is to assess the proportional distribution of the total harvest of late-run king salmon. For years the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) considered all late-run king salmon taken in the east side set net (ESSN) fishery to be of Kenai River origin for the purpose of run reconstruction even though it was widely accepted that some of the commercial harvest was bound for the Kasilof River. During the years 1980 – 2011 the ESSN fishery was the beneficiary of up to 50 percent of the total harvest with the Kenai River sport fishery taking most of the remaining harvest. A few fish were taken each year in the marine waters of Cook Inlet by sport anglers, a small number were taken annually by the commercial drift fishery and usually not more than a thousand were taken in the Kenai River personal use fishery.

The results of recent genetic studies have provided more insight into the river of origin of late-run king salmon taken in the ESSN fishery. Now fishery managers believe that 20 – 25 percent of the late-run king salmon taken in the ESSN fishery are of Kasilof River origin, making that fishery the primary harvester of late-run Kasilof River king salmon, for which there is still no management plan or annual enumeration. Pulling those fish out of the comparison leaves the ESSN fishery / Kenai River sport fishery split of approximately 40 percent / 60 percent annually. So if managing primarily for sport and guided sport is expressed in terms of the historical harvest proportions, then assessment tells us that primarily is situationally defined by a long history of about 60 percent of the total harvest going to the sport fishery.

Compare this with what was observed in 2012 and how it is likely to play out in 2013 if no changes are made to the management plans. In 2012 both the ESSN and in-river sport fisheries were restricted from the start of the season and closed throughout most of July. When this disastrous season was over the sport fishery had taken about 300 late-run kings and the ESSN fishery had a harvest estimate of just over 700. If few restrictions and about 60% of the total harvest are the criteria against which primarily is measured then it is clear that we failed to achieve our objective for the in-river sport fishery.

What we did learn from 2012 was at the present low levels of abundance of late-run king salmon normal prosecution of the ESSN fishery can result in harvest of late-run kings large enough to force managers into placing significant restrictions on the sport and guided sport fishery. That outcome is absolutely inconsistent with the purpose of the Kenai king salmon management plan. If there is a limited number of surplus late-run king salmon the sport and guided sport fishery must be assured the opportunity to harvest at least half of that surplus. Restricting the sport and guided sport fishery to catch and release only while allowing the ESSN fishery to harvest hundreds or thousands of late-run king salmon is unacceptable.

The term minimize first entered the lexicon of UCI codified regulation in the 1970’s with the adoption of the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Policy. In the policy, ADFG was instructed to conduct commercial fisheries in an effort to minimize the harvest of late-run Kenai River king and coho salmon and Susitna coho salmon. Minimize is now a prominent directive in both the Late-Run Kenai River Sockeye and Drift Gill Net Fishery management plans.

Over the years the definition of “minimize the harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon” has come down to two prescriptive management directives. The most important regulation currently on the books providing a definition of minimize is WINDOWS. Windows, the weekly mandatory closures of the ESSN fishery on Tuesdays and Fridays, are the most important component of the regulatory definition of minimize. Simply put MINIMIZE=WINDOWS. The mandatory weekly closures for the ESSN allow pulses of salmon to enter the river to provide for adequate escapement across all components of the run and to provide personal use, sport, and guided sport fishermen with a reasonable opportunity to harvest salmon resources.

The second component is the hourly restrictions for use of Emergency Order (EO) openings in accordance with abundance of sockeye salmon of Kenai River origin. In addition to the two 12-hour regular openers on Mondays and Thursdays, the ESSN is afforded EO hours based on abundance of sockeye, which is divided into three tiers: below 2.3 million (low), between 2.3 – 4.6 million (normal), and above 4.6 million (high). The EO hours per week are as follows:

During normal abundance of sockeye (between 2.3 – 4.6 million), there is 51 EO hours available per week, which on average allows for five days of ESSN fishing at 15 hours per day. For high abundance of sockeye (above 4.6 million), there is 84 EO hours available per week, which on average allows for six days of ESSN fishing at 18 hours per day as the Tuesday window is removed. At low abundance of sockeye (below 2.3 million), there is 24 EO hours available per week, which on average allows for four days of ESSN fishing at 12 hours per day.

With the combination of 24 hours per week for regular openings and the additional EO time based on the abundance tier, the time available to fish the ESSN fishery ranges from 48 hours to 108 hours per week. Windows and available EO time in the ESSN fishery work in tandem to allow for the harvest of sockeye salmon primarily for commercial purposes while providing for adequate in-river escapement and harvest of salmon resources.

As the UCI Task Force pursues its mission, the members must not abandon the overall objectives developed over 35 years of regulatory development.