Sport Fishing on the Kenai is Under Attack – Reallocation through a 1,000 cuts

Update from the 2017 Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting for Upper Cook Inlet

The consensus of every sportfishing advocate from the Kenai to Anchorage to the Mat-Su is that this is shaping up to be one of the worst Board of Fisheries meeting in 40 years. Gov. Bill Walker has now appointed or reappointed each member of this Alaska Board of Fisheries. The direction that this new “neutral” board thus far has been to significantly roll back past regulatory measures adopted to provide reasonable opportunity to sport anglers, dip netters and the at-large sportfishing industry in Upper Cook Inlet.

In the initial days of this Upper Cook Inlet meeting, this Board is systematically removing key elements of management plans that provide for successful sport fisheries for king and coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet, and the tremendous economic values that they sustain.

Examples from the first three days of Board deliberations:

  • Essentially eliminated the 1% rule for commercial set netters in August. The 1% rules were designed for both the UCI drift and set net fisheries to close them in August when less than 1% of the total UCI commercial fish harvest of sockeye is harvested in two consecutive commercial fish openings.
    1. The steep decline of the Kenai River early and late-run king salmon fisheries has had profound impacts on the local sportfishing community, resulting in the disappearance of more than 100 Kenai River guides and associated tourism businesses.
    2. That means the August coho fishery has become so much more important to the overall recreational fishery.
    3. The 1% rule is the very definition of an orderly, predictable transition between fisheries as mandated in the Sustainable Salmon Policy of Alaska between commercial fisheries that target their money fish sockeye salmon and the sport fishery that targets silver salmon in August.
    4. This removal of the 1% rule essentially dismantles a 40-year priority for Kenai River coho salmon for recreational – read that public – fisheries in Alaska.
    5. The commercial ex-vessel of fish harvested, typically less than 10K sockeye in two consecutive openings, is less than $100,000. Mopping up sockeye salmon is now prioritized above putting one week’s worth of harvestable surplus of silver salmon into the Kenai River in August, worth millions of dollars to the local sportfishing industry.
  • Significant weakening of the commercial fish component of the paired restrictions in the Kenai River king salmon management plan.
    1. The board increased the fishable hours from 36 to 48 hours per week in the commercial set net fishery when the in-river anglers go to no bait for king salmon conservation. This year, in the lowest commercial sockeye tier (less than 2.3 million sockeye run), it means that there will be no paired restriction for the commercial set net fishery in this tier when there are step-down measures in the sport or personal use king salmon fisheries.
    2. The board also stripped from regulation any king salmon conservation measures in August for the commercial set net fishery. This means all the king salmon savings we accrue in July in the sport fisheries and commercial set net fisheries go to those remaining set net fishermen in August who “supposedly” are unable to be profitable with 99 percent of the cumulative harvest of sockeye.
    3. Through a board generated proposal not publically reviewed prior to the meeting, the board decoupled the East Forelands set net fishery in the Kenai section from paired restrictions for Kenai king salmon conservation. This means when every king counts to meet minimum escapement, a major set net area is exempt from sharing the burden of king salmon conservation that is being shoulder by the five remaining set net areas, in-river anglers and personal-use dip netters. Board member Ruffner put forth the substitute language to remove the East Forelands from the paired restrictions. This board-generated proposal was not evaluated by the general public, advisory committees or the department prior to this UCI meeting, and there was not adequate public process for thorough review during the meeting prior to board deliberation.
  • The board, under the leadership of Jeffrey, Ruffner and Jensen, tried to weaken language for the sport fish priority for king salmon. The change in language was disguised as “housekeeping” language, but it served to lessen the importance of regulatory language that stated that there should be a “priority” for king salmon harvests by the recreational fisheries in Cook Inlet. This also extends to language for the UCI Coho fisheries. Data indicates that commercial fisheries in UCI harvest 57 percent of Coho harvests in UCI, while recreational fisheries harvest 43 percent.
  • The board, again under the leadership of Jeffrey, Ruffner and Jensen, tried to erase the “Tuesday” window in July. This is a floating window, one of two windows per week to delivery fish, kings and sockeyes to the in-river fisheries and for conservation. The other window is the fixed 36-hour window on Fridays. Both windows move meaningful numbers of fish into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for escapement and in-river harvest by the general public. If successful, this would have erased 50 percent of the windows now in regulation. This effort failed 3-4.
  • The board decided to open the North K-Beach set net fishery (southern-most stat area in the Kenai Sub district) to 600 feet of set net gear to harvest Kasilof-bound sockeye salmon when the Kenai sub district set net fishery is closed to the harvest of Kenai River sockeye salmon and or king salmon. The board with this action has directed that it is more important to prevent going over the upper end of the Kasilof River sockeye salmon escapement goal instead of prioritizing the minimum escapement goals of either the Kenai River sockeye or king salmon escapement goals. It means that when the Kenai sub district of the commercial fishery is closed to harvest of either Kenai River sockeye or king salmon, which most likely will trigger in river closures of the sockeye or king salmon in river fishery, the North K-Beach fishery will remain open with 600 feet near shore set nets that “supposedly” harvest only Kasilof-bound sockeye salmon, but not either Kenai River sockeye or king salmon.
  • To limit the use and abuse of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, the Board authorized an unlimited amount of time for commercial set net fishing in the whole Kasilof sub district, some 40 plus miles of beach, from June 25 through August 15, with 600 feet near shore set nets, in an effort to target Kasilof sockeye during times of low Kenai & Kasilof king salmon and or Kenai sockeye. Genetic testing in the whole Kasilof sub district has shown harvests of all three species, and the data is very preliminary on whether or not this will entail salmon savings for species other than Kasilof sockeye. The Board did not put any side boards on the total amount of time this fishery can be utilized outside the time restrictions in current sockeye and king salmon management plans.
  • The Board of Fisheries is acting on anecdotal evidence of commercial fisheries distress instead of actual economic data. The board is acting on anecdotal testimony of “distressed” commercial set netters without actually confirming such claims with actual economic data. The real story is that the actual harvest data presented to the BOF by ADFG shows that from 2013-2016 the average percentage of overall harvests between the drift and set gill net fisheries has remained consistent of 55 percent drift harvest to 45 percent set net harvest when compared to the 50-year harvest averages of these two gear groups. This means that despite the paired restrictions for king salmon conservation, the East Side Set Net fishery has not seen a drop in their historical harvest average when compared to the drift net fishery since king salmon conservation restrictions, for the years 2013 – 2016 when paired restrictions have been enacted.

In summary, with no compelling evidence that there is an impending financial disaster in the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, this Board of Fisheries, all appointees of Governor Walker, has significantly weakened the 40-year directive of a sport fish priority for king and coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet, potentially triggering untold damage to a billion-dollar economic driver in Southcentral Alaska.

Next up this week is the Central District Drift Gillnet management plan and then the Personal Use Dip Net regulations this weekend. We shall see how much of the Northern District fishery conservation and allocation protections put in place to move salmon through the central district drift fleet remain in place after board deliberations.

We encourage anyone who has an interest in the Cook Inlet personal use fisheries to attend the Board of Fisheries meeting on Upper Cook Inlet this weekend, from 8 am to 5 pm, at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Anchorage.