In a split 3-3 vote the Alaska Board of Fisheries will take no action on an emergency petition filed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association which requested a continued closure of the East Side Setnet Fishermen in August.
The board met for the second time in a week to discuss a series of emergency petitions requesting action on commercial fishing in the Cook Inlet.
The KRSA petition cited record low numbers of late-run king salmon returning to the river and the remainder of the king salmon run which bleeds into August as reasons to keep the setnetters out of the water.
Fish and Game biologists estimated that between 10 percent and 16 percent of the Kenai River late run king salmon return to the river from Aug. 1 through Aug. 10 in the department’s response to KRSA’s petition but suggested no emergency action was warranted.
Bill Brown, vice-chairman of the Board of Fisheries from Juneau, said he was confused about Fish and Game’s assertion that no emergency action was warranted.
Fish and Game’s written response to the KRSA petition concluded that the petition did not meet criteria in Board of Fisheries petition policy justifying an emergency action.
Among other requirements the policy requires an emergency be an unforseen, unexpected event that threatens a fish or game resource. Fish and Game contends the low king salmon run was not an unexpected event.
Brown said he was confused as to why a Kenai king salmon run that didn’t meet minimum escapement would not be an emergency.
“I’m still stumbling over this one issue,” Brown said. “... You expected that to be the case? Did you expect the run to not meet escapement?”
Tom Vania, an area regional management biologist from Anchorage, said the department had been expecting a below-average run.
“We were expecting something to be probably a little better than we saw last year and what we have seen in-season is well below what we had anticipated,” Vania said. “We certainly didn’t expect to see a king salmon return probably being the lowest we have on record since 1986.”
Brown said the run being the lowest on record made him think emergency action was warranted.
Vince Webster, board member from King Salmon, asked what the average setnet harvest was in August.
Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial division of Fish and Game said the department took an average from 2009-2011 years as those were ostensibly years in which the king salmon runs had been low and the data could be more reflective of this year’s low run.
Shields said 172 kings were caught per period and the average sockeye catch was about 14,000.
Webster also asked about restrictions on inriver sport fishermen in August.
“Have you discussed eliminating bait in the sport fishery because the kings aren’t smart enough to realize they’re not supposed to be caught,” he said.
Vania said the department had considered restriction on the sport fishery.
Webster said he didn’t believe the criteria for an emergency had been met after his questions were answered.
“As I stated at the last meeting last week the department is looking at this scientific data daily,” Webster said. “They’re looking at all users ... let them do their job. I don’t think this meets the criteria because they already have the authority to manage for conservation.”
Board member Sue Jeffrey, of Kodiak, asked about average size of the kings caught in nets used by setnetters and then suggested a potential reduction in mesh size to reduce king harvest.
Brown asked if the number of kings reportedly caught in setnets last year was accurate and said he’d heard testimony suggesting otherwise.
“Several people testified that they did target kings,” Brown said. “Several people said that they knew they weren’t supposed to be catching kings but they did catch them; that they thought they deserved them and then ... that not all the kings were declared. There’s an underground market for it.”
Shields said that by law every king caught had to be reported.
“That’s the law,” Brown said. “The rumblings I heard from setnetters is that that’s not always the case. I guess you’ve heard none of those rumblings?”
Shields said the biologists hear rumblings about all the fisheries all the time.
Ultimately chairman of the board Karl Johnstone, of Anchorage, Brown and Tom Kluberton, of Talkeenta, voted that the criteria for an emergency declaration had been met while Webster, Orville Huntington of Fairbanks and Jeffrey voted against an emergency designation.
The three petitions submitted by Matanuska-Susitna borough residents were voted down after the board had extensive discussion on one submitted by Andy Couch, a member of the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
Couch’s petition suggested a Fish and Game order was contrary to board policy.
According to emergency order 2s-18-12 commercial drift gillnet boats were allowed to fish in drift area 1 and the expanded Kenai and Kasilof sections of the upper subdistrict on Saturday July 21, 2012. The reasoning behind the expansion of the fishing area was that the escapement rate of sockeye salmon into the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers could exceed optimum escapement levels according to the order.
Couch contended the emergency order did not comply with board policy which requires that consideration of northern-bound salmon stocks be considered when fishing the driftnet fleet.
Couch cited the Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery Management plan, which contains the statement that the purpose of the management plan was to ensure an adequate escapement of salmon into the Northern District drainages.
After extensive discussion revolving around how Fish and Game determines the run of fish into the Northern District, the board ultimately decided that Couch’s petition did not represent an emergency.
After voting to take no action on Couch’s petition the board also moved to take no action on the other two petitions from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough based on their discussion.
“Had this petition been before us a month ago I would have had no hesitancy [sic] of voting for an emergency so we could hash it out and maybe do something,” said board member Bill Brown. “It’s too late to do anything, the emergency is past; I don’t think I can favor an emergency vote.”
While KRSA’s petition failed to trigger an immediate closure of the setnetters, the department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday closing setnets in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands Sections of the Upper Subdistrict on Thursday.
According to the emergency order, the closure is necessary as king salmon runs are low. The sport fishing division is prohibiting bait and limiting gear in portions of the river beginning Thursday and running through Aug. 15 in an effort to protect the remainder of the late run king salmon.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com