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Setnetters share in king conservation effort

Posted: July 27, 2011 - 8:00am  |  Updated: July 27, 2011 - 8:42am

Officials are hoping an emergency order made Tuesday will counterbalance another one issued Friday concerning the management of Kenai River king salmon escapement.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently decided to prohibit bait in the Kenai River beginning Monday in the face of slumping king salmon escapement numbers.

The bait prohibition came a week before the season closes and the decision drew criticism from some sport fishing interests.

Those fishermen protested the department's decision and pointed to the east side Cook Inlet commercial set-netters who would have likely continue to fish the large number of Kenai-bound sockeye salmon and keep river-bound kings that happened to land in their nets.

However, in response, Fish and Game decided to allow only drift gillnet fishermen to fish Tuesday in the expanded Kenai and expanded Kasilof section of the upper sub-district - a move that will hopefully limit the sockeye flood and allow more kings to enter into the river, Fish and Game area management biologist Pat Shields said.

"So when you run into a situation where you are trying to make escapement goals and follow the management plans, sometimes they don't cover all of the situations or speak to all of the scenarios that may arise over the course of a season," Shields said. "We find ourselves in that situation right now where the sockeye salmon escapement into the Kenai River continues to build."

Normally, set-netters and drift-netters fish together, Shields said, but the drift-netters normally harvest a higher percentage of Kenai and Kasilof-bound sockeye where they were allowed to fish Tuesday. However, Shields said that decision left some set-netters asking why they weren't allowed to fish during the emergency order.

"To the sport side, they would like to see that occurring more often and on the commercial side, they are asking why are they not fishing because the plan does not require them to not fish," Shields said. "The plan allows for them to fish."

The effort is an attempt to conserve and reduce the harvest of Kenai king salmon in order to ensure escapement goals and to ensure high returns years from now.

"We find ourselves in the middle of a weak Kenai king run and in the middle of a strong Kenai sockeye run, and how you manage both of those stocks to make the escapement goals for each stock is very challenging," he said.

Shields was unsure of how the fishing would be managed after the king season closes.

"We haven't made up our minds how we are going to fish in August yet," he said. "It'll kind of depend on where we end up in this last week in kings entering the river."

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the decision to not let set-netters out was the "right call."

"I think they recognize that Kenai River king conservation needs some assistance and it was good that they put in a window and the drift fleet has shown that it has been effective in harvesting sockeye in the expanded corridor," he said.

"It was nice to see that the commercial fish division understood the importance of window," he continued, "and putting kings into the river and that they are using that tool to help ensure that we meet the minimum escapements for king salmon."

Chris Every, Kenai resident and commercial set-netter, was also supportive of the measure.

"That's fine with me because what the department is saying - and it's probably true - that the drift fleet does not catch a high volume of kings," he said. "They get very minimal kings and that's the driving force for the set-netters not fishing today because the king run is underperforming. So that's the way it is."

He said its worth loosing out on a sockeye day to have the kings go into the river, but added he would like to see a little closer regulation on the in-river fishery.

"If the department is saying the king run is that weak, that we have to be out of the water and not fish at all - which this is the time of the year that you predominately manage for reds, which the guides don't like that but that's the way it works - then there needs to be more restrictions on the in-river king users," he said. "They took away the kings from the dipnetters - they have to release them ... They are protecting the kings by not allowing us to fish at all on a massive red run, but the guides continue making their lifestyle, but the only thing they're missing is that they can't put bait on their hook."

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