Fish and Game talks salmon

A few raised their voices, others interrupted Alaska Department and Fish and Game officials mid-sentence, some questioned the department’s ability to accurately forecast the salmon return or grumbled at each other under their breaths.


So, it was a typical meeting between about 40 people with their livelihoods tied to fishing and the 10 representatives from regulatory body tasked with managing the resource Wednesday at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building in Kenai. 

Area biologists explained Fish and Game outlooks for both sport fishing and commercial fishing in Cook Inlet for the upcoming season before fielding questions many in attendance said were the same questions that have been asked about fisheries management for several years.

“I don’t find a problem with people asking the department tough questions,“ said Pat Shields, commercial fisheries area biologist. “If I was a fisherman, both a guided fisherman in the river or a commercial fisherman, I’d be asking the department tough questions.”

The first half of the two hour meeting was dominated by questions about four indices the sport fishing division of Fish and Game has been using to measure the king salmon run since 2011.

Several people questioned the validity of individual indices alleging they hadn't been in use long enough for the division to use them and expect an accurate forecast of the run.

Of the four tools, the east side set net fishery and the sport catch per unit effort have generated data for the sport fishing division that can be tracked back to the mid-1980s while the net-apportioned DIDSON and the netting project catch per unit effort have less historical data, said Robert Begich, area biologist for the Fish and Game’s sport fish division after the meeting.

A fifth index, the DIDSON, the department's new sonar, could occasionally be used as a fifth measurement to corroborate data coming from the other four indices by comparing the sonar's estimates to its estimates from previous years, but is not yet used as a stand-alone measurement.

"It's a comparative tool, but there's no management objective for it yet," Begich said.

Not all of the indices are used to achieve the department’s management objective for the early run.

Begich said measurements from the east side set net fishery were not gathered until late June when the fishery opens and therefore could not be used as an accurate predictor of the early run for king salmon.

During and after the meeting, several people mentioned a memo on the late run Kenai king escapement for 2011 that showed higher escapement levels than what the department had forecasted in-season.

The memo, presented during a Board of Fisheries work session in October, estimated the 2011 escapement based on TS-based abundance, or the split-beam sonar formerly used by the division to track abundance, at 29,800. That number was above the count estimates released by the department mid-season in 2011 and used to restrict the bait fishing on the Kenai river for the first time since 1998.

However, the same memo outlines why the division does not believe the split-beam sonar to be an accurate measurement for escapement including experiments in the 1990s that showed the sonar to be poor at predicting fish size and therefore unable to discriminate between king and other types of salmon which are in much higher abundance.

Roland Maw, a driftnetter and executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said after the meeting that he questioned the indices the sport fishing division was using to measure the king salmon return because he didn't think several of them had been around long enough to ensure accuracy. 

"The problem is, they really in fact don’t know what the escapements have been," Maw said. "So if the input data, which are the spawns or the spawning numbers, are questionable then how can you use those numbers relative to any other indexing methodology?"

However, the meeting wasn't without its moments of levity. As a biologist explained how the department would be using radio tagging measures to track king salmon a member of the audience asked, "What's the frequency you're going to use for tracking?" The room erupted into laughter.

Despite the protestation of a few members of the public who wanted to continue discussing fishery management, the last few minutes of the meeting were devoted to explaining a few new research projects the department will be conducting over the 2012 season to help it gather data on the movement of salmon both in the inlet and in the Kenai river.

Brent Johnson, president of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and a setnetter, proposed another research project for the department to conduct involving monofilament use in setnets.

Johnson said he'd heard from a Fish and Game biologist monofilament was better at catching kings. He caught Shields after the meeting to discuss doing research into the matter on his own over the upcoming season.

"If the idea is for setnetters to catch more sockeyes and less kings, it should be studied," Johnson said. 

Even though the monofilament line is cheaper than the line he was formerly using, Johnson said he would not hesitate to make the switch.

"I would be willing to absorb the higher cost in an instant because it's all about catching sockeye in the end," he said. 

As of Friday, the Kenai River king salmon run was estimated at a cumulative 241 as reported by DIDSON.