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Setnetters protest closure

Fish and Game managers consider options

Posted: July 19, 2012 - 8:23am  |  Updated: November 27, 2012 - 8:41pm
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Pavel Mena, of Kasilof, squints in the sunlight as a group  of Kasilof-area setnetters and their friends and employees protested outside of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office Wednesday July 18, 2012 in Soldotna, Alaska.   Rashah McChesney
Rashah McChesney
Pavel Mena, of Kasilof, squints in the sunlight as a group of Kasilof-area setnetters and their friends and employees protested outside of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office Wednesday July 18, 2012 in Soldotna, Alaska.

He came to Kasilof to spend a summer setnetting. Instead Ashton Echols found himself strumming a banjo accompanying an impromptu protest outside of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices Wednesday in Soldotna.

The Utah resident joined about 20 Kasilof-area setnetters, friends and crew in protesting an extended closure of their season which has allowed them to fish for three days before facing permanent season closure due to extremely low numbers of Kenai River king salmon.

"I think it's important to know that there are real people making a living off of this," Echols said. "My captain and I are struggling to keep our heads above water. We've barely caught enough to pay for gas."

An emergency order closing the Kasilof and Kenai area portions of the east side setnet fishery sparked the protest which elicited repetitive honking and slowed traffic on Kalifornsky Beach Road for a few hours.

The overall din was barely muted in Pat Shield's office where setnetters had been streaming in since the possibility of a permanent season closure became one step closer to a reality with the release of Tuesday's emergency order.

Shields, an area biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game, had been talking for so long his voice was giving out by the end of the workday Wednesday.

"We're evaluating options that would perhaps allow setnetting to go back into the water," he said. "We don't have any solid plans yet; we're just beginning to look at options and evaluating options that setnetters bring to us."

Shields said he's had setnet fishermen suggesting options all day. While some of them were options the department could consider, others were outside of the department's authority.

Under the current management plan, the department has the authority to modify aspects of its plan with respect to time and area authority, meaning it can change certain times fishermen can fish and specify the area.

"Some of the things we can't do, unless the Board of Fisheries directly gives us that authority, is to modify gear. So the department can't go to a setnet permit holder and say, 'You're only going to get one net per permit now instead of three,'" Shields said.

This means fishing setnetters with fewer nets, ostensibly lowering their chinook salmon harvest while still allowing for sockeye harvest, does not fall under the department's area of authority, Shields said.

"Some setnetters have asked for us to go out and close parts of the drift gillnet area and let setnetting in there," he said. "That is an option we're looking at but (that may be) an allocative decision. The department isn't supposed to allocate, decide who gets to harvest the fish. That's what the Board of Fisheries does."

Unlike other commercial fisheries in the state, the Cook Inlet commercial fishing groups are allocated geographic areas to fish rather than a specific number of fish to harvest.

"So, in this case we would be taking some of the allocation in area to the drifters and providing that to the setnetters, that's what we've been asked to look at and that's one of the things we'll review," Shields said. "It perhaps is beyond our legal authority to do so."

According to Fish and Game estimates as of Tuesday, 497,888 sockeye salmon have made it into the Kenai River and 161,934 have been counted in the Kasilof River.

Shields said he'd been asked several times how many sockeye would have to make it into the Kenai River above what the department's maximum escapement goal is to allow the setnetters to reopen and catch the excess fish.

"The department has not come up with a specific number yet," he said. "We've just said that there will be a point, if sockeye salmon escapements increase beyond the goal, there will come a point at which we may say -- may say, that's the key -- that's too many sockeye. We'll let the setnetters out and let them kill some kings even though we're in king conservation mode."

The escapement goal in the Kenai River for sockeye salmon is between 1 million and 1.2 million sockeye. If the run size increases to more than 4.6 million total sockeye, then the upper end of the escapement goal changes to 1.35 million, Shields said.

"It would occur in the latter part of July or perhaps in August, we would have to look at it. First of all, where are we at in king salmon? How many king salmon have we saved in the interim? Are we getting close to the lower end of that objective," he said. "The way I understand it is the further we are from the king salmon minimum objective the further we are away from that, the higher we're going to be willing to live with the sockeye. It's not something we're willfully wanting to happen, but we'll live with it."

In the meantime Shields said his division would be using one of the only tools it has at its disposal, the drift fleet.

"We will fish really aggressively with the drift gillnetting group. We've begun to ramp up their fishing time," he said. "To control Kenai and Kasilof sockeye, that's the main, really the only, gear group we have."

While the commercial division tries to find ways to reopen the fishery without causing further damage to the fragile king salmon stock, fishermen in Kasilof said they are suffering more than they ever have before.

According to Fish and Game's fish count website, 90 chinook salmon were estimated to have been caught by commercial setnet operations. While the Kasilof area setnetters have had three fishing periods, the Kenai River portion of the fishery has been open for one fishing period.

In river, sport fishermen have seen their chinook harvesting season closed during the late run for the first time ever.

"The few days we did get to fish there's not much around so we didn't do that good," said Tim Osmar, a Kasilof area setnetter whose nine nets are set up near Humpy Point.

"I've been doing this for 45 years and it's never been like this," he said. "I've caught 100 fish in nine nets in three days."

The two people he has on his crew have been working at the dock pitching fish coming in from the driftnet fleet, Osmar said.

"They'll make a few bucks," he said. "Enough to fly home anyway."

Making it home has been at the top of Echols' mind.

"I'll have to hitchhike," he said. "I love coming up here, it was a way for me to make money and enjoy what I'm doing. I'm not just some random dude off the street. I spent over $2,000 to get up here."

Osmar said the closure on the setnet fishery affected several hundred families and he wasn't sure he would be able to continue operating his nets.

We are way in debt. Probably $10,000 down. Every season starts in the hole, you have to spend money to get set up," he said. "The first day of fishing pays the debt down, the next few pay the crew and after that you may make a few dollars for the year."

For now, Osmar said, he'd continue to protest in an attempt to be heard by the people he thinks can change the season for him.

"We don't have anything better to do than stand outside and protest," he said.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at

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jlmh 07/19/12 - 08:56 am
If the fish numbers aren't

If the fish numbers aren't there, then they just aren't there. We can't just let them deplete the fishery so some out-of-stater can make a few bucks.

akal 07/19/12 - 09:02 am

yeah , kill all the fish then you will have something to really protest. the biologists know what they are doing let them do their job, play your banjo for bucks on the street corner maybe you will make some money that way.

jake 07/19/12 - 09:11 am
Osmar Family

The Osmar family has done extremely good with their setnets in the last 20 years. They should all be millionaires, or close to it, if they managed their money properly.

RiverKeeper 07/19/12 - 11:05 am
Throwing Stones

The issue (reason for protest) at hand has nothing to do with the conservation of the river.

All of the east side set net fisherman that I have spoke with agree that the fishery should be closed for King Salmon conservation.

The issue is that they are shouldering the financial burden.

And, I tend to agree with them.

The Kenai east side set netters got (1) day this year to fish. The guides were open up unitl 12-midnight last night. Yes, they were restricted (single hook, C&R, no bait) ...But they were still able to put clients in the seat.

The drift fishing fleet is fishing today and has been since Monday. Likely that they will fish every day from now til the middle of August.

Just because someone may have made money in the past (JAKES POST: Re: Osmar Family) does not mean that you can unfarily punish them on that account. Or that the fairness argument holds any less weight.

Real solutions are needed, not stone casting.

How about restricting the in river commercial fishery (GUIDES) to Friday and Saturday only unitl the escapement is reached? ...While allowing the Set netters and drifters to fish a guarenteed minimum of at least (1) opener per week ?

This seems like a bit more equitable share.

I dont have the answers.

But, I do know that sacrifice from ALL of us will be required in order to successfully manage this problem.

drjofak 07/19/12 - 12:04 pm
Let the Biologists do their job

Everyone who has participated in the Kenai River fishery knows each user group is entitled only to have the right to try and catch fish allocated to ones user group after escapement goals have
been achieved. The Biologists need to do their job without the consideration of any other factors. Alaska's historic fisheries have survived based on this model. Times change. The current fishing season may be abnormal or representative of the next ten seasons. No one knows. Returns, price and fishing time are always variable. Everyone should feel concern for the user groups that have suffered this year…and joy for those who have benifited from the circumstances of this years season. The need to understand why the king runs are declining has never been more important. The screamers and mouth breathers on all sides do not add to that understanding. We all need to stand by the biologists who are responsible for holding the line on escapement goals. If not for our immediate interests, then for the interests of our kids and grand kids. We need further to support research as to what is taking place on the high seas to Alaska's salmon. Long term management requires facts, not short term fixes. Finally, the State also needs to determine if there are actions it can take to assist the user groups who have been crushed by this years required management, set netters and guides alike.

RUKidding2 07/19/12 - 05:07 pm

I'm sort of struggling to have sympathy for Utah resident up here killing AK fish so he can take $$$ back home. The locals that live here year-round are a different matter.

No matter what decisions AK F&G make, both of the parties that exploit the fish for their own $$$ gain will send lobbyists to Juneau in an attempt to undo anything that keeps them from making a buck. The kings are the big losers. The residents that don't make money off the fish also lose.

Fishing Family
Fishing Family 07/19/12 - 05:58 pm
Ask the real questions

It is unfortunate that Rashah talked mainly to a Utah resident when she was there yesterday, but he was an easy target what with the banjo and all.
There were plenty of longtime Alaskans standing alongside the road as well, like Tim Osmar, who were more than willing to talk to her. I wish she would have approached our family, also Alaskans, who keep our money in state and are simply trying to earn a modest living, not kill fish indiscriminately.
Yes, the Osmars have been fishing for decades, but none of us are in this to become millionaires (referencing the rude posting from earlier). This is our lifestyle, and we aim to keep the fishery sustainable.
The real problem here is that no reporter is asking the hard question -- which is: "Explain the numbers." Readers blindly accept the Fish and Game statistics, which are based on two counting systems that Fish and Game itself acknowledges have problems. Talk to Pat Shields, Jeff Fox or someone from the Sport Fishing division to rationalize and legitimize their counting methods. In fact, they have no idea how many kings are coming upriver. Their counting method is flawed.
Not only has this closure flattened family businesses, but it will have a financial trickle-down effect on the Kenai, and statewide.
The Utah resident is in the minority. We Alaskans make up more than 80 percent of the 400 permit holders in the east side; more than 50 percent of them live right here on the Kenai. I'm not interested in paying for a Utah resident's summer vacation either. But please, show some respect for the Alaska families who are simply trying to survive.

smithtb 07/19/12 - 10:36 pm
Politically managed fishery

Let the biologists do their job. If only we could. The decision to close set netting was not made by biologists, but by politicians on the board of fish and politically minded ADF&G supervisors. The issue here is that when this closure was announced by ADF&G managers, setnetters were told that since the river was closed to king fishing, they were closed, per board of fish regulations, no matter what. Even if six gazillion Sockeye return to the rivers in the month of July. I was there. This is not biological management, this is political. The user group who actually does hire lobbyists has enough influence to say that King salmon are more important than Sockeye.

For the last few weeks setnetters have been mostly closed due to lack of fish, both Sockeye and Kings. Personal use has still remained open in both rivers, and Kings - the rarest trophy Kings, up until today, were still up for keeping by in river sport and commercial (guide) fishermen.

Now the Sockeye are here and we're all shut down... No, just the setnetters. Personal use is more out of control than ever, and the King guides are now advertising that they are "Red killing machines" because there are hundreds of thousands of Sockeye escaping our rivers. They are even leasing their boats out to dip netters on the Kenai, profiting off of the 'personal use fishery'. Guess they're commercial gillnetters now! Five years from now when the red runs are in the toilet and the king runs have possibly bounced back in spite of the problems in the river, it will be a win win for them. Lack of sockeye will keep setnetters out of the water, and they will have a bunch of small kings to themselves.

Setnetters are very concerned about conservation. That's why we've been able to sustainably fish these runs for over a hundred years. What's happening to us is wrong, but more importantly what's happening to the fish is even worse.

AKmrclean 07/20/12 - 09:45 am
The pollock fishery

This question of wondering where the kings are and how to manage is not simple.
Ask any fisherman from Kodiak and they will tell you its the trawler fleet who chase the Pollock. Kings make up a large percentage of their bycatch, this has been known for 20 plus years.
The king fishery problem is not a local kenai one, the entire state of Alaska is in crisis.
Who's to blame?
The logic dictates the answer would lay on the shoulders of ALL users of the kings. We all have an effect, some more then others.
However...the problem becomes political quickly. We have the ADFG Sport Fish division attempting to manage the king fishery with local management. The fish are not local, the go out into the great big Pacific ocean and get picked off by asian trawlers in international waters or by the Pollock fisherman as bycatch and get dumped back into the ocean...dead.
The ADFG Commercial fishing division is managing the king and Pollock fishery. The Pollock fishery has deep political pockets and worth more economically then the kings.
The State biologists know this, they do their best but their hands are tied. The politics dictate the outcome, I believe.
In my opinion, if the Pollock fishery methodshas were changed, the kings would stand a veered chance and we would see a rise in our local king population and the setnetters would be back .
The Alaska News Dispatch has had two great articles on this topic.
And to the banjo playing guy from Utah ....sorry for your luck, no Alaskans are feeling sorry for you. Why was he even included in this article? Darn shame the Clarion didn't interview one of the
Alaskanthe Setnetter families that has been doing this fishing for decades.

hoost 07/20/12 - 11:20 am
You people need to have a

You people need to have a heart for the Utah guy. Quit taking your anger out on a poor lowly deckhand who came up here to work hard for 2 to 3 months for not much money and who sadly, because of faulty ALASKA politics is going home broke. I would truly hope that residents of other states would show Alaskans more grace if we went to work temporarily in another state and ended up going home broke from no fault of our own. Instead, many of you have the attitude of "good ridance and get the f*** out!". I've been an eastside setnetter for the better part of a decade and just cannot believe the negative propaganda being laid on one of the oldest and most sustainable user groups in the inlet. Since the 70's the Eastside Setnet Fishery has been a limited entry fishery. That means there are no more nets in the inlet now than there were 40 years ago. On the other hand, the number of in river users has exploded one hundred fold since then. I'd like to also make a point regarding the Early Run Kings. That run was just as dismal as the Late Run and there wasn't a single Eastside Setnet in the water. Please explain how we are wiping that one out.

Raoulduke 07/20/12 - 01:02 pm

you said it all.When you said "Alaskan Politic's".This does not apply to just fishing as most folks would agree.

julie 07/22/12 - 09:00 pm
End Salmon Bycatch petition

PLEASE sign and forward to your facebook and email contacts the petition to stop salmon & halibut bycatch. We have to STOP the pollock trawlers big money corporation from these BAD fishing practices. Clicking on the link does not sign you up automatically

msjinxie 07/24/12 - 06:47 am
Deal with it

Look, to everyone out there cranking and complaining about the closures need to stop! It is what it is! Biologists are just as concerned as we all are about the Kings. There is nothing that can be done about it unless the real problem is identified. The water took forever to warm up all over the state since last winter. Has messed up crabbers, Fisherman, and those of us who fish for our families. The guy and the Banjo? Booo Hoo Cry me a river. Neither of you look very bad off. Cannerys, McDonalds, several others have jobs out there. Either get a job or go back where ya came from. Things are tough everywhere, and the value of a dollar means something to people these days. Next year will be a great year i would bet, no one seems really acknowledge the massive earthquake two yrs ago in Japan. That had obviously some sort of affect. The reds are huge this year, and not enough kings came back. Sounds like the bigger picture here. Unfortunately guys, just as the Timber industry died in Southeast Ak, so is the great fishing. Too many people, too many charters, and an over abundance of visitors in the summer. Think about it, thats alot for a 4 yr fish to survive thru. As the say, Quitcherbitchn!

msjinxie 07/24/12 - 06:53 am

Really? You want the hard working men and women WHO LIVE HERE and are suffering to feel sorry for this physically abled man? THIS is what is wrong guys. I have compassion, just not for out of staters to come to OUR State and protest because he wasnt watching the news for all the fishing and King closures? Dont think so. He messed up and came up anyway. To that i say, tis the way it goes, welcome to our world! I sure wouldnt travel to Utah and have the gall to protest where i do not live! Thats rude...go home and get to work this summer is done. Get over it.

kenai_kid 07/24/12 - 09:08 am

I was just wondering msjinxie, when did you come to Alaska? What brought you here? Even if you are one of the minority that was actually born and raised here, what makes you think this great land is reserved for Alaskans? After all, we are part of the "UNITED States"
A very large percentage of Alaskans came to Alaska for a summer adventure and stayed. Some of those transplants have bred another generation of Alaskans.
As for the young man in question, he probably had planned this trip for months and knew about as much as we locals did about the King returns and setnet closures. As a matter of fact, he probably did his homework a little better than most as the sockeye return was projected (and is) above average as well as the price.
I am a proud 34 year resident of Alaska. I came here on my thumb for a summer adventure and ended up calling this home. Why not welcome someone else to do the same?

smithtb 07/24/12 - 11:27 am
Nothing to see here, folks.

Banjo dude came here for the same reason all the tourists do - opportunity. He saw the opportunity for a good job, they saw an opportunity to catch a world record King. Unfortunately, they were both dissapointed.

Congratulations Bob Penny, you finally got what you want. You and your local guide minions finally succeeded in getting the setnetters shut down. In a few years when the Sockeye runs tank from overescapement, moving on to the drifters will be a snap.

Pretty soon the only fishing industry left will be guided sport fishing. Or will it? Banjo dude's gonna tell his friends there are no jobs up here. Your clients are gonna tell their friends there are no kings up here, and the few remaining aren't anything special. Probably they'll go halibut fishing for world record halibut only to find they've been taken to a chicken hole. Mmmm. Mushy halibut....


kenai123 07/30/12 - 06:33 am
Resident / Non-resident? Where did all of our king salmon go?

Speaking to a resident or non-resident is NOT the issue. Yeah I would like it better if my neighbor and I were the only ones out there fishing but that is plain stupid. We have way more fish than we need so it is just really a question as to where the state can get the best price for the fish. Any state owned fish is worth 30 - 40 times more if the public is allowed to try to catch it on rod-reel fishing gear. So it is a no-brainer these fish should be first allocated to the public and then if there are any left over allocated to commercial fisheries. But the real issue is where did all of our king salmon go?

Many Alaskan's are wondering what can or should be done to resolve the decline in king salmon within the Cook Inlet area. If you ask the Alaska Department of Fish & Game they will point to a snowstorm of data and grafts, which in the end leaves the viewer even more confused about our commercial by-catch problems. I have been reviewing our king loss data since 2002 and have come to a single conclusion. That conclusion is that many things may need to change within our commercial fisheries but key within those changes is that statewide we must stop all commercial fisheries from profiting "in any way" when they kill non-targeted specie as by-catch. This means that commercial fisheries should be legally required to retain and process ALL BY-CATCH and then DONATE it to a charity. That means that if you "by-catch kill" a beluga whale calf; you are forced to retain, process and donate it. If you by-catch kill a king salmon: you must retain, process and donate it. By charity I mean some kind of Food Bank. This would prevent commercial fisheries from donating by-catch to their favorite "commercial fisheries non-profit".
This change alone, over time would eventually resolve most of Alaska's current by-catch problems. With this change commercial fisheries would eventually be forced to at least begin thinking about avoiding non-targeted by-catch. The king salmon by-catch issue is 100% about money; if you can make by-catch non-profitable, commercial fisheries will eventually find a way to prevent the financial drain. If we leave things the way they are we will be permanently losing many marine specie and fisheries in the very near future.
As long as commercial fisheries are allowed to profit "in any way" from by-catch, the by-catch issue will never go away and therefore all our Alaskan natural resources
and fisheries will go on suffering FOREVER. The Alaskan public must organize on this commercial fisheries by-catch issue and tightly focus on this single goal.
That goal must be to " REMOVE ALL THE PROFIT" from all commercial fisheries by-catch. The new reality in our fisheries future must be that commercial by-catch is going to cost you BIG. It really does not matter if it is a large fine or the charity donation, the Alaskan [filtered word] needs to organize and do whatever it takes to begin the process of eventually holding commercial fisheries accountable for the marine destruction it is causing within our ocean. The wholesale slaughter of non-targeted species is no longer just acceptable losses. This mean that the Alaskan public must rise up and compel the Alaska Board of Fish and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to take action and make SUBSTANTIAL changes in the way ALL by-catch is processed by ALL of our commercial fisheries. This is a very reasonable goal for the Alaskan public to pursue in resolving this very unreasonable waste of our common Alaskan natural resource heritage.

If you are concerned about the king run, bycatch, closures, the pollock trawlers STILL FISHING and KILLING KINGS & HALIBUT sign & forward this petition to all your friends

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