Primary Purpose of King Salmon Management Plan is to Provide Angler Harvest Opportunity

Each of the codified management plans that govern important salmon fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) contains a purpose statement in its opening section. These purpose statements articulate the goals of each plan. The statements in and of themselves do not direct the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to implement any specific management action but do lay out the overall intent by the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF). Each plan then goes on to detail specific actions consistent with this intent.

The purpose statement for 5 AAC 21.359 Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan states: the purposes of this management plan are to ensure an adequate escapement of late-run king salmon into the Kenai River system and to provide management guidelines to the department. The department shall manage the late-run Kenai River king salmon stocks primarily for sport and guided sport uses 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.

The purpose statement for 5 AAC 21.360 Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan states: the department shall manage the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stocks primarily for commercial uses based on abundance. The department shall also manage the commercial fisheries to minimize the harvest of Northern District coho, late-run Kenai River king and Kenai River coho salmon stocks to provide personal use, sport, and guided sport fishermen with a reasonable opportunity to harvest salmon resources.

The BOF has formed a Kenai River king salmon task force to examine strategies for managing the UCI salmon fisheries during these times of low abundance of king salmon, particularly late-run Kenai River king salmon. Since the purpose statements are sections of the codified regulations, they provide specific direction to the task force and should be taken literally until otherwise directed by the Board. The charge for the task force is to identify reasonable alternatives for managing fisheries during times of low abundance, not to re-engineer the entire approach to UCI salmon management.

For late-run Kenai kings this means: 1) the escapement objective needs to be met, 2) king salmon are to be managed primarily for sport and guided sport fishermen, 3) sport and guided sport fishermen should be provided with a reasonable opportunity to harvest kings over the entire run, and 4) in-river restrictions which preclude reasonable opportunity should be infrequent. The in-river sport fishery normally starts the season on July 1 with single hook, bait and retention of kings with no area restriction for retention and runs through July 31. In typical years with no restrictions on harvest opportunity the in-river king salmon sport fishery can harvest between 7,000 to 15,000 or more kings during the month of July.

2012 was a year of unprecedented low king returns, when all king salmon fisheries in the Cook Inlet area faced severe restrictions. Due to concerns over indicators of low abundance of the early-run to the Kenai River, all other river systems in Cook Inlet and most other major kings returns statewide, ADFG put pre-season restrictions on the harvest opportunity of late-run Kenai River king salmon for in-river anglers. The use of bait was disallowed and the river was closed to king retention above Sunken Island, which eliminated two-thirds of the available in-river fishing area to harvest. By July 10 catch and release restriction was implemented for the whole river and by July 19 the in-river king fishery was closed for the season.

Fewer than 300 late-run kings were harvested in July by the Kenai sport fishery, while the combined harvest of kings in the commercial fisheries is estimated near 900 (700 east side set net / 200 drift). The preliminary 2012 DIDSON based sonar estimate was 21,500, which according to ADFG is higher than escapements in 2010 and 2011. Escapement would have been much lower without restrictive management actions taken before and during the season in the sport, personal use and commercial east side set net (ESSN) fisheries.

At the present low levels of abundance of late-run king salmon, normal prosecution of the ESSN commercial fishery would take all or more than the entire harvestable surplus, leaving no fish for the sport fishery and jeopardizing achievement of the escapement goal. That is absolutely inconsistent with the purpose statement of the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan. If there is a limited number of surplus late-run king salmon the sport and guided sport fishery should be allowed harvest opportunity first. 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 entirely contrary to existing plan. The ESSN fishery should be the first to give up harvest of late-run king salmon in years of low king abundance.

The ESSN fishery as presently configured and managed cannot reduce harvest of late-run king salmon without also giving up harvest opportunity for late-run sockeye salmon. The late-run sockeye salmon management plan states that sockeye should be managed primarily for commercial uses. It does not state that these stocks should be managed primarily for the ESSN fishery. The drift gillnet fleet did a fine job of harvesting sockeye salmon during the 2012 season and should remain the primary “tool” for this purpose. A drift gillnet fishery corridor was adopted by the Board in 2011 specifically to focus commercial harvest on strong Kenai sockeye runs and this measure should continue to be effectively employed.

If the limited harvestable surplus of late-run king salmon can satisfy the primary purposes of the king plan then the ESSN fishery should be given an opportunity to fish only so long as their harvest of late-run king salmon is minimized, does not result in harvest restrictions of the sport and guided sport fishery and does not jeopardize the escapement objective.