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Setnet fishing period closed

Fish and Game managing for low king, sockeye numbers

Posted: June 28, 2012 - 8:47am
M. Scott Moon
Joe Walsh, Isaac Howard, Sam Christopherson and Beatrice Walsh load sand bags Wednesday for the Taylor Fish Co.’s commercial setnet site on the Cook Inlet beach in Kasilof. “We’re not fishing so we’re working on a mountain of other work,” Howard said. Commercial setnetters are among those who have been affected by closures designed to help returning king salmon.

For the second day of the fishing period the Kasilof section of the set gillnet fishery will be closed to fishing Thursday.

On Wednesday the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also announced a closure of set gillnetting in the North District of Upper Cook Inlet for Thursday as the department continues to cope with poor numbers of early-run king salmon and a below-average return of sockeye in the Kasilof River.

The closure of the regular 24 hour-per-week fishing period for the setnet fishery in June is abnormal for Fish and Game.

"It's unusual in that typically we're on the other side," Pat Shields, area management biologist, said. "We're allowed to fish as many as 48 additional hours per week; usually we're using all of the 48 hours and wishing we had more because more often than not the Kasilof River sockeye escapement has us at a point where we can see that we're already behind."

As of Monday, 28,404 sockeye had been counted in the Kasilof River according to Fish and Game, which is well below the 10-year-average of 62,000 fish in the same period. The low numbers come despite there having been no commercial harvest of Kasilof River sockeye salmon stock this year.

This is the second year sockeye in the Kasilof have been measured using a DIDSON sonar and last year by June 25, there were more than 66,000 sockeye counted in the Kasilof.

The escapement goal is between 160,000 to 390,000 fish.

"If you look at the last 10 years and look at the average escapement, we're less than half of average," Shields said. "It's too early in the year to project what the final would be. The current escapement right now would suggest that we would make the range but we would be at the bottom end."

However, with 90 percent of the run yet to come, Shields said it was too soon to make projections on what the final escapement of sockeye into the Kasilof would be.

While the Kasilof river set gillnet fishery is managed for sockeye escapement, the restriction on the Kasilof also takes into account the low number of king salmon stock in Cook Inlet.

"When you have a mixed stock fishery you will sacrifice the harvest of the strong stock, the dominant stock numerically, to make sure you're achieving the minimum goal of the weaker stock numerically is kings," Shields said.

Chris Every, of Kenai, is a setnet fisherman whose nets are the first set south of the Kenai River.  While his fishery doesn't open until July 9, Every said he didn't know if they'd be allowed to open on time this year and the loss of a few days, while not significant financially, impacted his ability to get his operation running smoothly.

"What happens is we have such a huge amount of work and labor that goes into this to get ready," he said. "It doesn't work the first time. You need a bit of a shakedown time and we're not going to be allowed that."

Every said having a short time to prepare with several new people working his nets could be dangerous.

"It's fast, it's wild when you're setting gear in the mornings."

Every said he was frustrated at what he saw as the unfair targeting of setnet fisherman.

"I feel like there's enough room for everybody on this fishing system," he said.

Every said he'd been setnetting for 42 years and saw a low abundance of Kenai River kings become an issue in the last few decades.

"Two decades ago we, as a state of Alaska and the guided community, started promoting this river unbelievable. 'Come fish for Kenai kings.' They did this throughout Alaska. 'Come fish the Sound. Come fish Bristol Bay. Come fish the Deshka.' The Peninsula is very easy to get to ... we've been hitting these spawning beds for these kings relentlessly."
Every said he didn't want to catch chinook salmon.

"We would be happy if we could put a new product called king-be-gone on our nets because then that monkey would be off our back."

In the Upper Cook Inlet on the Deshka River, weir counts alongside angler and staff reports show a weaker than anticipated run of king salmon, according to the emergency order.

Shields said the Deshka was the primary river system that the northern district commercial fishery is managed around.

"They're pretty dramatic, pretty severe restrictions to this fishery that has already been restricted to begin with but we're looking at very low king salmon numbers in numerous drainages up there."

The sustainable escapement goal for king salmon in the Deshka is between 13,000 and 28,000 fish. By Monday 8,501 kings were estimated to have passed the Deshka River weir and the final escapement projection falls below 13,000.

Fish and Game has been coping with weak king salmon escapements into a number of Northern District drainages, including the Susitna River into which the Deshka feeds, for several years.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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