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An experimental fishery wrapped up its first season of gathering genetic sockeye salmon data during July in upper Cook Inlet.
In an effort to determine where sockeye salmon bound for northern Cook Inlet waters split from others during their annual run, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game contracted with Roland Maw, longtime commercial fisherman and executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, to run the five-year experiment.
Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial division of Fish and Game, said the purpose of the study was to help the division understand how to structure the commercial drift fleet when Susitna-watershed sockeye return in low numbers.
Earlier in the season, news that the final run of sockeye on the Kenai River was projected to exceed 4.6 million fish triggered portions of the management plan that determined how the drift fleet could be fished. In response, the department acted conservatively to protect sockeye headed north.
At the time, Shields said the fleet could have drifted district-wide but the commercial division decided to fish them to protect northern-bound coho and sockeye.
Susitna-bound sockeye have been classified as a “stock of yield concern” since 2008 and the Board of Fisheries has structured the Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet to try and protect that stock, according to Fish and Game records.
The experiment could help the department balance fishing the commercial drift fleet in a manner that conserves northern-bound stocks, but also allows for extensive driftnetting of Kenai-bound sockeye in times when setnetters are out of the water due to king salmon conservation concerns.
During the last two seasons, fishing an abnormal pattern — one full of driftnetters to nab the excess of Kenai-bound sockeye — is one of the few tools Shields’ division has, he said.
“At some point Susitna stocks must begin to separate themselves from Kenai and Kasilof sockeye,” Shields said. “First you need to detect that it’s occurring, (and) determine whether it happens in a predictable fashion; If you can’t predict when it’s going to occur, it would be very hard to structure a fishery.”
Maw and his 45-foot white and red boat, Americanus, were tasked with fishing seven stations on a line in the inlet from a starting point on the east side near the Blanchard line, which sits halfway between the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, to a point on the west side near the mouth of Drift River.
The first five stations were east of the Kalgin Island while stations six and seven were west of the island, although Maw said he had the discretion to move a station slightly in cases of anger to himself or his equipment.
Maw said the north test fishery was run in the same way the division’s test fishery in the south part of the inlet has been with each boat setting a 1200 foot, four-shackle net for 30 minutes before rolling it in from the water and picking what fish, if any, had been snared in the gillnet.
“It’s the standard net that the drifters use, it’s the same gear. The same length, same 5 1/8 mesh, a very standard color, the same kind of lead lines they use, same kind of corks and cork lines they use, so it’s really mimicking what the fleet has used historically.”
But unlike their counterparts who fished extensively this season to help cope with a large sockeye return, the Americanus crew spent a lot of their time sampling the sockeye they caught.
At each station, crew members took a genetic sample of the sockeye they pulled aboard by clipping an axillary process, or spine, near the pelvic fin and dropping it into a sample bottle full of alcohol to be sent off for genetic sampling in Anchorage.
They also sent a meter, housed in a steel cage, to the bottom of the inlet at every station to measure several environmental factors.
Maw said the meter measured things like temperature and turbidity to help the department potentially draw a correlation between an environmental parameter and where the fish were caught.
“But that water in the upper inlet is so mixed up and boiling so it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with there,” Maw said.
Shields said the department also takes genetic samples from fish caught in its test fishery in the southern part of the inlet, but that data hasn’t proved useful in determining were individual fish where headed because the salmon stocks are mixed together when they entered the inlet.
“It’s provided real neat information, good information, but not information that we can use in a way to structure or reduce harvest on one stock say, Susitna River sockeye, without reducing harvest of other stocks,” Shields said.
Maw and Shields said they have been hearing fishermen speculate for years about fish movement on the west side of Kalgin Island.
“There has been allegation and statements made on and off over the years that the Susitna Fish are over there or they’re not over there or portions of them are over there or the silvers are over there,” Maw said.
He found a few things when fishing the western most stations.
“Most of my chum salmon were over there, they moved through earlier and they had a westerly orientation,” he said.
As for salmon, Maw said he saw very little movement on stations six and seven for most of the season.
With the exception of four days between July 19-22, Maw said he didn’t see many fish at all on the west side of the Island.
“On the 19th, I think, the setnetters caught 17,000 sockeyes right there on the beach, I happened to be there when those fish started to move and I got a sample of those fish.”
That movement may not prove to be Susitna salmon however because, Shields said, salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers will sometimes ride tides into the northern district and then come back down with the ebb, running along the beach north of the Kenai river before heading to their spawning ground.
“So at the north end of the island, it’s likely that there’s a mixture of fish there,” Shields said. “As they go north, do the Susitna fish continue to head west and the Kenai fish head east? We don’t know.”
Even if data from this year’s tests indicate a separation point for sockeye, Shields said it couldn’t be used to structure fisheries yet.
“You really can’t say much about one year of data,” he said.
Some days the weather, boat traffic, construction equipment on the Christy Lee oil loading platform, divers in the water or waves of jumpers — slang for salmon running so thick they break the surface — conspired to keep the net out of the water.
Maw recalled a day when the crew had about 15,000 pounds of fish on board, a load he estimated to be nearly 2,400 sockeye.
“We had 850 (fish) on station three and about 1,500 on station four,” he said.
With that many fish in the net, it took the crew nearly five hours to pick it.
“The boat can hold about twice that, but the crew was tired. The tide had changed,” he said. “We went in and off-loaded that night then went out the next day and did (stations) one, two, three and four. Hit the fish again and had kind of back-to-back days there. I think we had 1,700 fish on that one set on station four the next morning.”
Both Maw and Shields said they’d heard complaints why the conrtact was awarded to Maw and Americanus, a boat easily recognizable in the southern part of the inlet as Maw had been awarded an eight-year contract to run the department’s test fishery out of Anchor Point.
Shields said the contracting wasn’t done locally, rather it was awarded through the department’s contracting office in Juneau.
“We here in Soldotna have nothing to do with it,” he said. “Anyone can bid it.”
Maw said tempers also flared when he fished near the setnetters on the west side of the inlet during their big run.
“We’ve since, I think, resolved our difference,” he said.
Shields said the results from the first round of genetic testing should be available from its Anchorage lab late in the year or early in 2013 and then changes could be made for the next four years of tests.
“As we begin to get the data, we may kind of move the stations around as it begins to isolate some areas where Susitna fish are,” Shields said.
Maw said he’d noticed a few patterns during his month of fishing, including where the bulk of the salmon seemed to congregate.
“The fish came in on the lower boat ... came in right around the middle rip and I also found them at the middle rip 47 miles north,” he said. “They just came in, like a little string, about a mile wide and they just came right up through the middle of the inlet.”
That movement meant he picked more fish on between stations three and five then he did on any of the other stations.
Station four was is located almost directly inside of a tidal movement Maw and Shields called the middle rip.
The powerful rip sometimes pulled the Americanus far off course.
“We made the set and immediately those rips suck you into them,” Maw said recalling one busy day. “At the end of that set, when we got to about the last half shackle ... it had moved me about 15 miles.”
He also picked far more fish from his stations in the north than he remembered pulling from his nets in the south.
The fish also seemed to move in suddenly this year, Maw said.
“Normally we have a push of fish into the Kenai right around July 10,” he said. “It gradually builds and it did that in the lower inlet, but the first part of that run seemed to slow down a little bit and then another part of the run came in and when they got together boy did they run in a hurry. I went from virtually no fish to 2,500 fish the next day. It’s like, ‘Hello, we’re here. We’re headed home.”
At one point, Maw said he sat at station four after spending hours picking 850 fish from station three.
“There were jumpers around and there were jumpers all the way over to the rip and I looked at that and I talked to the crew. I said “You know if we put this net in here with what we just had happen ... we’re going to be here probably ‘til well past supper. There’s a ton of fish here.’”
The crew, he said, ultimately decided to test the station.
“I laid four shackles out and the net just went crazy. The day before, hardly anything. It just surprised me how quickly those fish were moving en masse.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com