Biologists balance technology, politics and user groups in managing salmon

Management evolution
High numbers of red salmon coupled with a low numbers of king salmon, complicate fisheries management.

Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing look into Cook Inlet salmon fishery issues. The Clarion will continue to examine fishery management decisions and their effects.


To look at the history of fisheries management in the Cook Inlet is a study in compromises, contradictions and — as user groups swell in size — politics. In 1960, the first year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took over area management and released its first commercial fishing regulation management plan, it helped to stabilize diminishing returns on overfished and under-regulated stocks.

The first escapement goal for sockeye salmon the Kenai River was 150,000, well below 2011’s final escapement of nearly 1.6 million.

Ken Tarbox, retired Fish and Game biologist, said the sockeye stock rebounded quickly when fish and game took over management as it had more flexibility than the federal government did in managing runs.

However, that flexibility has slowly been restricted in what he called the “biggest philosophical difference” in the Department of Fish and Game’s ability to manage fisheries during its early years and now.

“The allocation battles in Cook Inlet are always going to result with somebody trying to control the board of fish process,” Tarbox said. “As it becomes more political and more polarized and less looking out for what’s the benefit for Alaskans in total, you get user groups going back and forth for an advantage.”

The history of in-season management actions on the late run of Kenai River chinook salmon since 1986 show twice as many liberalizations as restrictions and a decade, 2001-2010, when no in-season management actions were taken, according to management data from Fish and Game.

In 2011, the relatively sedate in-season management changed abruptly and a series of restrictions began with a prohibition on bait on July 24, 2011.

The first river-wide late run closure in recorded management history was issued on July 19, 2012.

While several factors contributed to the swiftness and building severity of restrictions in and around the Kenai River, and recent rallies by several user groups have hashed them over in several venues, the fact remains that chinook salmon stock appears to be in steep decline at the same time that sockeye salmon have been returning to the river in record high numbers.

Managing a multi-stock fishery, especially one in which one stock is overly abundant and the other isn’t, is complicated by discrepancies in data the department uses to determine strength, age and projected return of a run of king salmon.

Both the sport fishing division and commercial division of Fish and Game have made the transition to a new type of sonar called a DIDSON in the past few years.

The commercial division ran the DIDSON alongside its old sonar for three years and then re-interpreted all of its old data according to the new numbers, said Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial fishing division.

Sport fishing, however, wasn’t able to do the same, said Robert Begich, area biologist in the sport fishing division.

The resulting gap in accurate data between the two sonar has caused tension between biologists and local fishermen who disagree with the stopgap methods currently being used until the DIDSON can be verified as an accurate way to measure king escapement.

In some instances, data that would traditionally have been relied upon to provide insights about why certain salmon stocks were returning to the area in low numbers, are not reliable.

Timothy McKinley, area research supervisor for the sport fishing division, said that using Fish and Game’s extensive database on the average age of returning fish to hone in on a potential cause for the low king run couldn’t be done without an accurate count of the total run in previous years.

“That’s how we normally would use it but we keep circling back around to this. What years spawned that produced this poor run. All of them. All the ones that produced this run,” McKinley said.

But there is currently no way to re-interpret old data on the strength of runs that happened between four and six years ago, the average age of a returning king salmon, so while the division has an age composition proportion for those years, it has nothing to do with that data.

McKinley said the department does not have a total for the number of fish at each age in the run this year, but the in-season sampling shows that the age composition of this years king run is typical for the Kenai river. 

In other words, the fish from all of the spawning years are returning in low numbers. 

“We sample to get estimates of proportions but this year and the last few years we don’t have an estimate to apply that proportion too,” McKinley said. “So that’s the rub.”

Tarbox said Fish and Game’s changeover from old sonar to new and the resulting confusion was causing tension among area fishermen who didn’t understand or disagreed with measurement methods.

Specifically, he said the DIDSON, which the department announced before the start of the season it would only be using to corroborate in-season measurements, was being used to communicate estimated run strength.

“Some people are coming out in the football uniforms and finding out Fish and Game’s playing baseball. They go back and change to their baseball uniforms and find out Fish and Game’s playing soccer,” he said. “So they’re frustrated.”

Other types of research have proven less fruitful in recent years as well, including an approximately 8-year-old requirement that all trophy Kenai kings, 55 inches or larger, be brought into the department so it could take measurements, scales and determine sex.

The number of trophy kings being brought in has dwindled from fewer than a handful to none in 2012, Mckinley said.

Tarbox, who started with Fish and Game in 1980 and retired 2000, is one of those people who can’t seem to stay away from his work.

The former research project leader for commercial fisheries is a regular in the Soldotna offices and has a home office full of current research and management-related documents.

He isn’t shy about what he believes to be a major shift in management that has led to some of the more contentious debates currently raging among the department and the user groups it manages.

“When I first got here, the area management concept was a strong concept. Biologists learned their area, they related to the community and they made the decisions and they were responsible for those decisions,” Tarbox said.

Now, he said, major decisions are made by people in Juneau or Anchorage who have no connection or investment in the areas they manage.

“Politics get into it as you get further away,” he said. “The accountability goes down. The political influence goes up and so what happens is that it creates an environment where the area biologist has little or no ownership in the decision-making process.”

He was quick to point out that he didn’t want to demean the work of area biologists.

“They do valuable work, but the problem is the decision-making is being done by directors and commissioners,” a change Tarbox said was much different from his first few years in the office. “I think there’s only a few times where a commissioner overruled an area management biologist in my 20 years.

Now, commissioners are making in-season management decisions.” Management plans have also seen tweaks in a process Shields said is often debated. “We have a set of management plans for the commercial and sport fisheries here that have been debated ad nauseum,” he said. “We have really hashed those things out. There have been a number of changes and in recent changes and in recent times there have been a number of new restrictions put on the commercial fisheries here.”

He pointed to the Susitna River sockeye salmon as a good example of what happens when stocks start returning in fewer numbers and the management plans classify them as stocks of concern.

“There are various restrictions to the drift gillnet fishery and to the northern district set gillnet fishery that have been set forth in regulation to protect that stock,” he said.

Those restrictions include fishing windows, or time periods that cannot be fished, and limitations on the commercial division’s ability to fish certain user groups under emergency order hours when a stock is at risk of overescapement.

Shields echoed Tarbox’s sentiment that the process of changing management plans and the board of fisheries itself had become more visible in recent years. “What has happened, undoubtedly has happened through time, is that board (of fisheries) members that are appointed by the governor and approved through the Legislature, they have to go through a vetting process,” he said. “That process has become more visible. It seems that people appointed to serve on the board endure more public scrutiny now than they used to.”

While the process of electing board members has become more scrutinized, Shields said communication was not antagonistic between the two when Fish and Game presented its escapement goal reviews every three years.

“The board reviews, it’s a courtesy to them so they can see what those recommended goals are. Then they can modify management plans for social aspects,” he said. While certain parts of a Fish and Game biologist’s job have evolved to deal with politics, new technology and more research on the life-cycle of salmon, other things remain the same. “Some of the analysis and some of the things that we did in the ’50s we still do,” he said. “We still put a weir — a fence — across a river and count fish as they go through it one by one as they go through a watershed. They were doing that 100 years ago and we’re still doing that.”

When Tarbox looks back on his decades helping to manage runs he said the tumultuous nature of user groups dealing with low stocks of fish happened often, going so far as to call the 2012 demonstrations thus far “minor.”

“We’ve had people wrapping themselves up in gillnets, we’ve had people sitting — commercial fishermen sitting — out in front of (the offices),” Tarbox said. “Guideboats were filled in the parking lots.”

Referencing the 30 or so setnetters gathered outside of the fish and game offices, Friday Tarbox said he’d seen several hundred there.

“We had a floatilla … of all the setnet skiffs that landed at the Soldotna bridge and marched into town,” Tarbxo said. “So no, this is not new.”

Part of the problem, Tarbox said, is that people tend to assume that escapement numbers written in management plans are going to be reached for each fishery stock. “That’s crazy. You’re going to violate goals and you’re going to violate on the low end and you’re going to violate on the high end,” he said.

“You’re hoping that you’re within some reasonable bounds of escapements in that range.”

Despite his willingness to point out flaws in fisheries management within Fish and Game Tarbox was quick to point out that the state should be lauded for its management thus far.

“The state has sustained the resources for 50 years,” he said. “You’ve got to give the state system … credit and that, I think, is one of the things that’s being questioned right now. Are we in the process of destroying that? It’s an erosion of a system that was working and that’s the issue.”


Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify Tim Mckinley's discussion on determining the average age of the king salmon return. This story was also corrected to reflect the correct terminology when referring to sockeye salmon escapement in 2011 and correct the number of years the commercial division of Fish and Game tested two sonars together. 

Rashah McChesney can be reached at



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