After months of meetings, thousands of pages of documents and several hours of testimony from user groups in the Upper Cook Inlet, the Alaska Board of Fisheries ultimately voted unanimously to reject a proposal that would have made several changes to the management plan for the late run of Kenai River king salmon.
While the board did vote to change the management plan to reflect the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recently released new escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000, no other changes were made.
The proposal to make regulatory changes to the management plan came after the Board of Fisheries October 2012 work session during which the board recommended the formation of an Upper Cook Inlet Task Force.
That task force held a series of meetings before making a set of recommended adjustments to the late run management plan designed to provide equitable fishing opportunity to each user group during times of low abundance of Chinook salmon.
While the task force came to no consensus, the group did generate a proposal, which was submitted to the Board of Fisheries, however several changes were made to the proposal before board members began debating whether or not to adopt new regulatory language.
During his explanation of the proposal, Board Member Vince Webster said the fishery would be separated into two dates. Between July 10 and 20, if the forecasted escapement was below 15,000 the fisheries were going to close.
However, during a narrow window between 15,000 and 16,500 projected escapement of kings, Fish and Game could eliminate bait or prohibit the retention of king salmon in the sport fishery and reduce the setnetters to a maximum of 36 hours of fishing time per week.
After July 21, if the run was still forecast between 15,000 to 16,500 the department of Fish and Game could reduce the length of setnet gear.
Webster said the idea was to ensure some margin of fishing time, rather than just closing the fisheries.
The Upper Cook Inlet Task Force’s recommendations originally called for the Board of Fisheries to establish an optimum escapement goal of 13,000, however Board Member Tom Kluberton, who co-chaired the task force, said the lower number made people nervous.
During his testimony to the board, Chief Fisheries Scientists Bob Clark said the lower end of Fish and Game’s new escapement goal was set with caution.
“If you look around the state at the major king salmon stocks, none of them are doing well. There are record low run sizes or near record low run sizes around the state,” Clark said. “That makes us cautious about recommending goals that are different from the one we’re recommending ... (and) if we see continued low production, this goal will hedge against the stock going any further down.”
Clark said the department chose the lower end of its goal because there was a high probability of producing at least 90 percent of its maximum sustained yield, or the maximum number of fish from a stock that can be harvested sustainably.
“Below that, it drops off,” Clark said. “For example, going from 15,000 down to 13,000, the probability of overfishing doubles between just those 2,000 fish. This is a critical spot and you need to be careful how you pick it when production goes down.”
Clark said the lower end of the escapement goal was a critical point and cautioned board members to be careful when making their final decisions.
Several setnetters said they were concerned with the idea that their gear could be modified when there was no data showing that it would reduce their king salmon harvest.
Board Member Sue Jeffrey, of Kodiak, said she was concerned with the gear modification as well.
“The downside that has been told to many of us is that it puts it in regulation ... from the user group’s perspective, it definitely can do great harm to some setnetters that maybe just have one (setnet site) ... (and) that inequity is troubling to me,” she said.
Amber Every, a setnetter, said a reduction in gear size would put a financial burden on setnetters.
“Four months out from our season and we would have to buy brand new nets that we could possibly use if we get down into this ‘maybe’ situation and we can’t buy new nets,” she said.
Kluberton said setnetter Jeff Beaudoin also showed him information on the Fish and Game’s July projection numbers that would have made the task force’s recommendations more restrictive than the current management plan.
“We realized that in a piece of language ... we would have shut down the river, the setnetters and everybody because ... the late run didn’t have a projection above 15,000 until almost the 20th of July. So it was a disaster,” Kluberton said.
Ultimately, there were enough issues that the board decided to leave most of the current management plan in place.
“There was enough trouble that just going back to the management plan as it existed ... gave the department enough leeway to probably make it fine through the next season,” Kluberton said.
Setnetter Sarah Hudkins said she was satisfied with the board’s decision because she was unwilling to modify fishing gear as it would cause inequities in the harvest between setnetters.
“Once they put it into regulation, I just didn’t know if we’d get it back,” she said. “For someone who has a lot of permits, fishing one or two nets per permit was fine, but we have other people in our fishery who only have one permit, so instead of fishing three nets, they’re fishing one and it just doesn’t support our fishery as a whole.”