Board of Fish rejects emergency petitions

Update: The Alaska Board of Fisheries voted against taking up four petitions presented in Wednesday's meeting.

The first set of petitions regarding the Cook Inlet central district's commercial drift fleet and its effects on northernbound salmon failed with all six board members who were present voting against them.

The last petition, one filed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association was rejected with a split 3-3 vote after extensive discussion on the particulars of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's management practices.

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The Alaska Board of Fisheries will meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday via teleconference to discuss several petitions requesting emergency actions regarding commercial fisheries in the Cook Inlet.

Three of the petitioners requested action on conserving salmon stocks headed for the Northern District in the Upper Cook Inlet and another — Kenai River Sportfishing Association — requested continued closure of the east side setnet fishery. 

In order for the Board of Fisheries to take action on a petition it must first find the petition meets the criteria of an emergency, then what emergency regulations to adopt in response.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote responses to the petitions suggesting none of them meet the criteria of an emergency. According to Fish and Game, both the below-average run of king salmon and the above-average run of sockeye salmon on the Kenai River — the in-season catalyst for the department’s management decisions now being questioned in the petitions — were expected.

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association said between 10 and 16 percent of the Kenai River king salmon run returns to the river in August. Given the low return of kings so far, that percentage of the run could be significant, he said.

According to the association’s petition, allowing the east side setnet fishery to open in August could harm the king salmon stock, counteracting restrictions placed on the in-river sport fishery in July. 

The automatic closure of the setnet fishery when the in-river fishery is restricted expired yesterday, meaning the commercial fishing division could reopen the fishery in August to harvest surplus sockeye during this season’s above-average run.

While that expiration doesn’t mean the setnet fishermen will immediately be allowed back into the water, the option is there. 

“We’ve had very serious discussions, they involved staff from both divisions, weighing the options, weighing the outcomes of fishing versus not fishing.” said Pat Shields, area biologist for the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game. “We’re kind of waiting to see what the board does.”

Gease said the risk to the fragile king salmon fishery was too great to allow setnetters to “mop up the sockeye.”

“There is no harvest-able surplus (kings) if you’re not going to meet your minimum (king) escapement,” Gease said.

Andy Couch, a Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee member and Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife commission member filed a petition requesting clarification of the Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan and asking that the board take measures to conserve northern-bound salmon stock. 

In Couch’s petition he criticizes a Fish and Game emergency order  allowing the drift fleet to fish in the expanded Kenai and Kasilof corridors and Area 1 — a corridor which runs East of the Kalgin Island and west of the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.

According to his petition, Couch believes there was no consideration given to northern-bound salmon despite a section of the area’s drift gillnet fishery management plan stating the commercial drift fleet should be managed for adequate escapement into the Northern District.

“It is unacceptable to Alaskan residents living within the Matanuska Susitna Borough, that the only justification needed to sidestep a (Board of Fisheries) management plan, seems to be a desire to harvest more Kenai and Kasilof River sockeye salmon — especially, in an area where the highest commercial harvest of a sockeye Stock of Concern, and Northern District bound coho salmon already occurs,” Couch wrote in his petition.

Bruce Knowles, chairman of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Game Commission, submitted a petition asking the board to prevent Fish and Game from issuing emergency orders that would impede Northern District salmon stocks citing low escapements for sockeye and coho salmon.

Ben Allen, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission Member requested the board change Fish and Game’s management practices to conserve Northern District coho salmon stocks; adhere to guidelines set by the board of fisheries and prohibit the department from issuing any further emergency orders that would have a negative impact on northern-bound coho salmon stocks. 

Last Thursday, the board voted 5-to-2 at an emergency meeting to not take action on petitions from several area setnetters who have been out of the water for the bulk of their season.

A listen-only teleconference will be held in the Kenai Legislative Information Office, 145 Main St. Loop, Suite 217. 

 

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

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