WASILLA — Southcentral residents gathered in Wasilla on Nov. 15 to talk about Northern District salmon issues with fisheries managers and local politicians.
Mat-Su fishermen mostly target the Northern District of the Cook Inlet, including the Susitna River drainage and various Parks Highway streams. Salmon in those waters haven’t fared any better than their Kenai Peninsula and Yukon-Kuskokwim delta counterparts, with several declared stocks of concern.
Rep. Mark Neumann, R-Wasilla, introduced the other Mat-Su elected officials, and reminded the public that the meeting was as much for them to share their concerns as for Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers to explain the current status of area fish.
“These fisheries belong to you,” Neumann said.
Attendees raised a variety of concerns — including the roles of commercial and subsistence fisheries, to shortfalls in various species, to the possibility of a dam changing salmon runs.
ADFG Area Management Biologist Sam Ivey said there’s been a decline in king salmon for the past several years in western Cook Inlet and Matanuska-Susitna area rivers.
In 2011, 12 of the area’s 17 king escapement goals were not met. That goal is the number of fish managers want to get upstream to reproduce.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries sets those escapement goals for streams and rivers throughout Alaska based on recommendations from ADFG, which uses management tools to keep prosecution of state fisheries to a level that allows for the goal to be reached.
In the Mat-Su, most escapement goals are gauged by aerial surveys looking at the number of fish returning.
This year, Ivey said ADFG tried to reduce the number of king salmon taken with a number of strategies. Those included limiting the time when fishing was allowed, reducing the annual limit, and limiting gear types. On Parks Highway streams, fishing was catch and release only.
At midseason, managers felt they still weren’t going to meet some goals, so they took further action, closing the Little Susitna, then the entire Susitna drainage. On the Deshka River, bait was prohibited.
Commercial Fisheries Biologist Pat Shields explained that the commercial fleet’s effort was also cut significantly. The reductions came from shorter openings, closing some planned openings to try and allow more kings to go north, and spacing out the northern setnetters more than in the past.
“We took some pretty significant restrictions in the fishery to reduce our harvest potential on king salmon,” Shields said.
Shields said the division will likely implement similar restrictions next year.
Despite the efforts, escapement goals were not met. The Deshka River, Little Susitna, Clear Creek and Little Willow Creek were the only places where escapement goals were met. By the end of the summer, 13 of the 17 escapement goals weren’t met, Ivey said.
Ivey said the poor returns had a dual impact. Fishermen and businesses catering to them were hurt, and the department lost revenue from its king tags.
Ivey also talked about coho management in the area. No action was taken before the start of the season, but during the season, the department issued four emergency orders limiting fishing. The final order closed the entire Knik Arm Management Area to coho fishing, other than the Eklutna Tailrace.
Next year there will likely be see restrictive coho management, Ivey said.
Shields said his division is also trying to figure out what to do about cohos.
The strong sockeye run, combined with king and coho issues, made for particularly difficult management, Shields said.
Commercial fishermen were restricted in the area they could fish, in an effort to conserve coho, and setnetters didn’t fish, in an effort to conserve kings, but ultimately it still didn’t work out the way everyone wanted, Shields said.
“We’re left with this challenge,” Shields said. “You don’t ignore Northern District-bound stocks, and you don’t ignore Kenai-Kasilof sockeye stocks. It puts us in a difficult situation.”
In response to a question from members of the public concerned about how the escapement goals are set, Bob Clark of ADFG explained that while some escapement goals have been reduced in the past decade, it’s not because of the low returns. Reductions are generally because the department has more information, and realizes that fewer salmon are required to maintain the same population.
Despite those adjustments, of which there have been only a few, Clark said the department needs more information.
“We need some better information to understand why production is down and try to do something about it,” Clark said.
Better information could also help provide better management tools, he said. For now, the tools are too blunt to provide any fishing opportunity when abundance is low.
Some action is planned to help give the department better information next year.
Ivey said that next year, the Little Susitna will get a king weir, which should provide more timely in-season information.
Most of the streams are assessed with aerial surveys, but a weir generally provides better data. The department is working on adding other additional weirs, including two in the Yetna River system, and two in the Susitna system.
The department also operated a test fishery near Kalgin Island. That test fishery is expected to provide information on whether or not Susitna sockeyes can be separated from other sockeyes in the Cook Inlet either spatially or temporally. The first round of genetic data is expected to be processed in early 2013.
There’s also a new two-year project beginning to collect, organize and analyze local and traditional knowledge about Susitna River drainage king salmon stocks.
Each of those efforts would better inform managers about the fish they’re trying to apportion.
But users want information now, they said.
Bruce Morgan said he sees a lot of reaction after fisheries don’t produce as hoped or expected, and hears a lot of unknowns when the state talks about how to best manage the fisheries. But he wanted some concrete answers.
“I realize there’s no silver bullet to cover everything, give me a little bit. Tell me, just tell me something,” Morgan said.
Like other salmon discussions this year, subsistence was a question at the Wasilla meeting. Subsistence fishing is managed by the commercial fisheries division, and, for the Northern District, mostly occurs on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Howard Delo, a retired ADFG fisheries biologist, acknowledged that subsistence fishing can be a touchy subject, and said he’s heard anecdotal information that there’s some “extracurricular activity” in the west side subsistence king fisheries.
“How closely is this being enforced and has Commercial Fisheries considered making any restrictions to the subsistence fisheries on the west side, in this sharing of the conservation burden?” Delo asked.
Shields said subsistence users are considered a higher priority than others, to some extent. Restrictions were considered, but ultimately the division felt it was making the necessary reductions in harvest to provide for escapements.
But, Shields said he likes to hear those reports of extra activity, and can ask enforcement to check them out when he hears about them.
Central Region Supervisor Tracy Lingnau said all possibilities for conservation will be back on table when the division looks at management for 2013.
Jim Savage, from the Anchorage ADFG Advisory Committee, also asked managers to tighten restrictions on commercial fishing, believing that they’re contributing to the lack of fish making it to the northern district.
“You can do all you want in the streams up here… but if they never get up here, what’s the point?” Savage asked. “(It seemed like) last year, the drift fleet just ran amuck.”
Other users questioned if there should be commercial fishing at all, which Shields said was a Board of Fisheries issue, not something managers would change. He noted just 10 percent of the king harvest comes from commercial fishermen.
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.