Several local fishermen have been named to serve on an Upper Cook Inlet Task Force appointed by the Alaska Board of Fisheries to look into issues around the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan.
The 11-member task force is designed to represent a cross-section of fisheries in the upper Cook Inlet and includes drift and set gillnet fishermen, two sport fishermen, one guided sport fisherman, a personal use fisherman and a marine recreation fisherman.
The task force is co-chaired by Board of Fish members Vince Webster, of King Salmon, and Tom Kluberton, of Talkeetna.
The group will meet in Kenai during the next four months, according to a tentative schedule.
Its mission is to recommend a set of adjustments to the management plan at the Board of Fisheries Statewide finfish meeting in March 2013.
Each local member of the task force has decades of experience in Cook Inlet fisheries and several said they hoped to lend their expertise to a discussion about the state’s decline in king salmon returns.
Kevin Delaney retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as the statewide director of the division of sport fish.
Before becoming the statewide director, Delaney worked for 15 years as a sport fishery manager on the Kenai and Susitna watershed.
He currently works as a consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and holds one of two seats for sport fishermen on the task force.
“When the original king salmon management plans were developed in the 1980s I was the regional supervisor,” Delaney said. “The initial sonar projects, the initial tagging projects, these all occurred under my watch at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I don’t know if that makes me smarter or stupider, but that’s the facts. I was there at the beginning.”
Delaney said he felt that with his knowledge of the history of management and sport fishing in the inlet, he was obligated to help the task force.
The other sportfishing representative, Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Association also has several decades of experience in the Cook Inlet and on the Kenai River.
“I’ve been sportfishing on the Kenai since 1983. I’ve been to every Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fish meeting since 2003. I’m pretty familiar with all of the action,” he said.
Kramer said his focus was on king salmon conservation.
“Private anglers don’t have any commercial interest in the fisheries so our interest is conservation of the resource so the resource is well protected and there for future generations of private anglers to enjoy,” he said. “I think sometimes the discussions by other commercial endeavors get tuned into financial concerns and sometimes the concerns of the resource aren’t always a topic.”
Both Delaney and Kramer said they had seen a marked decline in the number of kings returning to the Kenai River.
Delaney said when the management plans were designed in the 1970s and 1980s Fish and Game was dealing with more salmon.
“We’re not absolutely sure how many were in the river back then, we were estimating using sonar and mark recapture. The three runs we averaged came up with an average of 45,000,” Delaney said. “There’s no question we’re dealing with fewer fish and significantly fewer fish so that’s got to drive the process more than any other one fact.”
Kramer said the issue wasn’t just fewer fish, but also smaller fish.
“Back prior to even 2005 ... if you didn’t come home with a 50 to 60 pound fish it was kind of a disappointing trip,” he said. “It has changed dramatically. That’s not that long ago, seven or eight years. So it has been a pretty rapid decline in those big fish.”
Kramer said he was looking forward to a discussion around the science in the king fishery and hoped Fish and Game biologists would have a good explanation of how they planned to measure future runs.
“The last few years everything has been kind of in flux and nothing is certain so I’m hoping (Fish and Game) can convince myself and maybe some others that they have some idea of how they can build more certainty into what they’re doing,” he said.
A seat reserved for guided sport fishermen was given to Andy Szczesny, co-owner of Alaska Fish and Float and Dennis Gease, of Kenai was given a seat as a personal use fisherman.
Three setnet fishermen, Jim Butler III, Ken Coleman and Robert Williams will represent the East Side Setnet Fishery.
Coleman, who fishes on the beach about halfway between the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, just north of the Blanchard line, said he has been setnetting for 40 years.
“I’ve got a lot of systemic experience and I thought that could be helpful in this process,” he said.
Butler fishes north of the Kenai River on Salamatof Beach and has been there for about nine seasons. Before that, he said he was a tender for a fish processing plant, a setnet deckhand and a driftnet fisherman.
Butler said he was hoping the task force would get more information about the last fishing season which saw dramatic closures in the sport, marine and commercial fisheries.
“We know about the impacts of how the management decisions got made ... I hope we can get educated by the department about how it is they made the decisions. What was the basis of those decisions? I’d say education is key,” he said. “What tools did the department have or ... do they need?”
Butler said the thought the public would be able to participate in the process and wanted to see people affected by the fisheries make their voices heard.
“I’d like to see broad support because I think this year demonstrated that the decisions and the management affects our community at large,” he said.
One driftnetter, Ian Pitzman, of Homer, will also represent commercial fishing interests on the task force.
Luther Anderson has run the King of Kings guide Service and Lodge in Happy Valley for 20 years. Anderson said he primarily guides saltwater fishing trips of king salmon and halibut.
Anderson said he wanted to see practical solutions to support the ailing king fishery so his son could continue to work in the family business.
“I want to make sure that he’ll be able to do the same thing that I’m doing and hoping we can keep the industry alive and thriving so that we can make a living at it,” Anderson said.
The task force’s tentative meeting schedule will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Meeting dates are:
■ Nov. 16 at Kenai Peninsula College- Kenai River Campus, 156 College Road, Kenai;
■ Dec. 14, 2012 at the Challenger Learning Center, 9711, Kenai Spur Highway, Kenai;
■ Jan. 14, 2013 at the Challenger Learning Center;
■ Feb. 14, 2013 at the Challenger Learning Center.
Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect the venue-change for the first meeting.