After “threading the needle” with salmon management decisions in Cook Inlet throughout July, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commercial Fishing Director Jeff Regnart hopes one of the last calls of the season doesn’t unravel the work of his staff up to that point.
Faced with a sockeye return that ranked among the top five all time and what may end up as the lowest return of Kenai River king salmon ever, ADFG was under even more scrutiny than usual in the most hotly contested fishery in Alaska.
Most of that pressure was coming from sport fishing groups who won several new restrictions on the commercial drift fleet and setnetters at the March meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
The justifications for new restrictions on commercial fishermen were to allow more salmon to reach the Northern District by pulling the drift fleet out of the middle of Cook Inlet once per week, and to pass more king salmon into the Kenai River with a fixed closure for setnetters on Tuesdays.
Although nearly every management restriction is lifted for a Kenai River sockeye run larger than 4.6 million fish — which became apparent it would be around July 15 — area managers only used about 55 percent of the fishing time available for the next two weeks and kept the Tuesday closure in place.
Other king salmon conservation measures were restricting anglers to no bait after July 25, and prohibiting retention of kings by dipnetters in the personal use fishery.
Those efforts were not lost on groups like Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
“I think they did a good job,” said KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease. “They had in-river restrictions, they had setnet restrictions, they fished the expanded (Kenai and Kasilof) corridor. They fished the drift fleet aggressively in that expanded corridor, and that’s what we wanted.
“We were saying they were managing well.”
All that changed Aug. 5 when ADFG announced it was opening 56 hours of fishing for setnetters between two periods over the weekend of Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, followed by the normal Monday opener Aug. 8.
Setnetters catch the vast majority of king salmon taken by commercial fishermen. This season the setnetters caught 6,893 kings compared to 511 for the drifters.
With Kenai River king salmon looking sure to miss the lower end of the escapement goal of 17,800, KRSA blasted the decision as putting “greed over conservation” and issued a vote of no confidence in ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell.
Midway through the Sunday, Aug. 7, fishing period, managers determined that the setnet harvest would fall below 1 percent of their season harvest for the second consecutive day. That triggers the closure of the setnet season and restricts drifters to the west side of Cook Inlet.
That mid-period decision raised some questions from sport fishing groups after commercial managers told the board in March that limiting fishing periods to a calendar day would present challenges because of the timing of daily harvest reports.
When asked if managers made a special effort to project the daily harvest in this case because of the public pressure brought by KRSA, Regnart said his staff makes a special effort “every single day.”
“For me to try and sit in a board meeting and say what that Sunday was going to be like is just about impossible,” Regnart said. “That’s why it’s so hard for us to crystal ball for users what it might be like. In this case, I wouldn’t want to go to the board and say, ‘Yeah, we can make that 1 percent call really easy during the potential second 1 percent day.’ That is not true. If we would have had a large afternoon tide in terms of fishing effort, it wouldn’t have been 1 percent.
“It’s not something I’d want to make a practice of. I’d hate to see the board reconstruct the management plan in that way, because we’d be wrong more times than we’re right.”
In his first year as division director after 13 years as an ADFG regional supervisor, Regnart is well aware of the difficulties of managing the mixed stock fishery of Cook Inlet with millions of fish, five species and hundreds of thousands of users.
“I know this is a highly charged issue with a lot of different players,” Regnart said. “Looking at the number of sockeye that we had to deal with and the restrictions we took, and the way we used the (emergency order) hours, I’m pleased with how it came out.
“I hope that the season is not summed up by what went on that last weekend. There’s a lot more to the season and the variety of decisions that occurred every single day for the part of a month.”
In emailed responses to questions, Campbell wrote that she was also “pleased” with the way sport and commercial fishing managers worked together this season. She also took the statements from KRSA — which had endorsed her for commissioner just a few months earlier — in stride.
“It’s common for user groups to disagree with ADF&G’s in-season management strategy in Cook Inlet,” Campbell wrote. “Our managers were faced with the difficult task of juggling multiple management objectives and abundant sockeye runs coupled with below average king returns, and took measures throughout the season to conserve king salmon.”
Gease said one positive that came out at the end of the season was the acknowledgement from ADFG that king salmon returns to the Kenai were below average for the third straight year, and KRSA is planning to submit a request to the board to take up additional management conservation measures at an upcoming meeting.
Several members of the Board of Fisheries who supported the commercial fishing restrictions adopted in March also grilled Regnart about the 56-hour late-season opener and expressed frustration with ADFG over a regulatory snafu during an Aug. 8 emergency meeting held by teleconference.
The majority of the board — Vice Chair Karl Johnstone, Bill Brown, Mike Smith and Tom Kluberton — felt their intent for implementing restrictions was made abundantly clear in March. However, regulations written by the department and codified April 21 reversed board intent regarding whether the drift fleet could fish the middle of Cook Inlet twice per week.
At an emergency meeting June 30, the board amended the regulations written by the department, but that drew a court challenge from United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Copper River Seafoods and several fishermen. An Anchorage Superior Court judge agreed and reversed the board action July 13.
With the ball thrown back into the board’s court, the four-member majority delegated responsibility for amending the regulations back to Campbell rather than take up the issue for a third time. Board Chairman Vince Webster, John Jensen and Sue Jefferies voted against the delegation of authority and said they preferred the board to use an upcoming meeting to properly amend the regulation.
Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell told the board Aug. 8 he believed the record from the March meeting was “ambiguous” about board intent, and Campbell said the same in response to questions.
Kluberton took issue with that statement, as did Johnstone.
“It was relatively clear, but it’s become cloudy in hindsight due to an error by the department,” Kluberton said. “If anyone in the department wants to mention whether it was a typo, or you know, whatever, it happened.”
Kluberton, Johnstone and Brown said the department could have fixed the errors, which amounted to the misplacing of the words “or both” in one regulation and the inclusion of the word “expanded” in reference to drift corridors along the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
Campbell wrote that she, “wasn’t comfortable using the standing delegation of authority, which allows for correction of errors but not substantial regulatory changes, to address this situation.”
“We’ve been experiencing issues brought on by the department, brought on the court, brought on by folks who didn’t like the decision made by the board,” Kluberton said. “They (commercial fishermen) preferred the regulations written by the department. The board made an effort to correct that, which put the board’s findings on weaker ground because all of a sudden, was it an emergency or was it not?
“The board is not what created and caused this confusion.”
The department is taking comments on the proposed regulations through Sept. 12, and Campbell will ultimately make the decision whether to adopt the board’s preferred regulation. The process is being conducted under the Administrative Procedures Act, not the normal procedure where the board adopts a proposal and the department writes the regulation.
If Campbell doesn’t adopt the board’s preference, the majority indicated they would take it up themselves before next season.
“It is not my intent that she can adopt any regulation she wants,” Johnstone said.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.