In the first meeting of the Kenai River King Salmon task force a discussion of the utility of mandatory regular periods and windows for the east side set net (ESSN) fishery took place. For about as long as folks can remember the ESSN fishery in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) has fished what are called “regular periods.” There are two regular periods per week, each of which is 12 hours in length, extending from 7am to 7pm. Monday and Friday were originally designated regular periods but in the late 1990’s the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) changed the Friday regular period to Thursday in an effort to put more fish in the Kenai River for the large numbers of people who participate in the sport and personal use fisheries on the weekends.
Since fish don’t look at a weekly calendar or a clock then head for shore on Mondays and Thursdays, what is the utility of regular periods? In the years just after Alaska was granted statehood most salmon populations, including those of UCI origin, were in bad shape and harvests were significantly lower than what we have today. Commercial fishing interests asked the then Alaska Board of Fish and Game to establish regular periods in an effort to have some level of predicable fishing opportunity and organize their efforts around some level of time certain. This helped with hiring and training crew members and in planning for the operation of the seafood processing industry.
The selection of Mondays and Fridays split the week so that management could assess harvests and the health of the runs and, if run strength warranted, the hope was that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) would allow fishing on Wednesdays. The total time typically fished per week for the ESSN fishery was either 24 or 36 hours, depending on whether or not the extra period was used.
Regular periods thus were originally established to serve the business purposes of the commercial fishing industry, both for harvesters and processors. A time certain schedule was set, crews could be trained early in the season when fish were not abundant, processors could prepare for delivery of fish and harvesters could hold down other part-time jobs in the community. Over the years the fact that these fishing periods were regular enabled ADFG to utilize the harvest data to assess aspects of the returns of salmon, particularly sockeye and late-run king salmon.
While ESSN harvest data is more integrated into management of sockeye, ADFG does not depend heavily upon this harvest data for management of late-run Kenai River king salmon. The millions of dollars invested annually in the in-river sonar equipment serve that purpose, regardless how imprecisely, as evidenced by the multitude of emergency orders over the years justified by sonar count data alone. Never has an emergency order issued for the conservation of late-run Kenai River king salmon been justified solely upon ESSN harvest data.
Regular periods for the ESSN fishery make little sense in the new reality when reducing harvest of late-run king salmon is the primary concern of fishery managers. Straining the water early and late in the season killing 300-500 late-run king salmon per day when sockeye salmon are not abundant, just because it is Monday or Thursday, ties the hands of management and makes it less likely that intensive ESSN fishing can occur when the sockeye are abundant. During times of low king salmon abundance, fishing based on abundance of sockeye does not mean fish every Monday and Thursday AND when large waves of fish hit the beach.
Windows are periods of mandatory closure of the commercial ESSN fishery. Windows became a regulatory management tool in the late 1990’s after a series of years during which UCI sockeye returns were historically strong; in an attempt to maximize commercial harvest, ADFG issued emergency orders that allowed the ESSN fishery to fish almost continuously for up to three weeks in the second half of July and early August. This practice became known as “back to back periods.” These back to backs had a significant detrimental effect on the sport, guided sport and personal use fisheries in the lower Kenai River, the largest such fisheries in the state of Alaska.
Proposals submitted by KRSA asked the BOF to break up these “back to backs” by creating periods of time, spaced out during the week, where the ESSN fishery was closed so that salmon, both late-run king and sockeye that were close to the mouth of the Kenai, committed to enter the river, could do just that. The BOF has since adopted regulations creating two weekly window closures of the ESSN fishery, one on Tuesday and the other on Friday. These windows provide for continuous escapement during the full course of the return, a management practice called for in the Policy for Management of Sustainable Fisheries, and put fish in the lower river for sport, guided sport and personal use fisheries. This later objective is called for in the preamble of both the late-run king salmon and late-run sockeye salmon management plans.
There is no question that window closures, like regular periods, have somewhat “tied the hands of management” but windows have greater utility. Windows make it possible for large numbers of salmon to enter the river that would otherwise have been caught. This is particularly true during mid July during the peak of the returns. These salmon serve the biological purpose of providing escapement throughout the course of the run. These fish also serve the business objective of providing opportunity for sport and guided sport anglers to participate in large numbers and supporting the economy of the region. These fish have also served the very important purpose of putting fish on the table for Alaskans who fill their freezers with fish harvested in the personal use fishery. The Friday window is especially important to the personal use fishery because it allows sockeye to enter the lower river in time for working Alaskans to participate in the personal use fishery on the weekends. Sockeye salmon harvested in the Kenai River sport and personal use fisheries now provide Alaska residents with the largest single consumptive use of a fish and game resource in the state, estimated at more than four million pounds per year.
Both regular periods and windows “tie the hands of management” but in times when low abundance of king salmon is going to drive management of the UCI salmon fisheries it makes much more sense to build commercial fishing opportunity around window closures than to strain the water killing kings on Mondays and Thursdays while waiting for sockeye to hit the beach. Without regular periods there are still five days each week during which ADFG can authorize commercial ESSN fishing in an effort to fish when the sockeye are on the beach. Windows do not stop them from harvesting sockeye any more than regular periods enable them to avoiding kings.