Gary Hollier has a king salmon problem.
The commercial setnetter has had it for a few years and he’s far from the only one.
Most of the east side setnet fishery in the Cook Inlet was largely shut out of their fishing season last year after seeing their fishing time drastically reduced in 2011 in the name of king salmon conservation.
With last season’s federally-declared economic disaster hanging over his head, and the threat of being largely shut out of another season in 2013 looming, the 42-year veteran of commercial setnetting decided to make some drastic changes of his own.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday — a little more than a month from his first scheduled fishing period — and Hollier’s shop in Kenai is noisy.
Power chords from the local classic rock radio station blare from a stereo on one side of the room, a talking head on a television set contributes to the din from the other side.
Then there’s unmistakable snip of scissors cutting through the mesh of one of his nets as Hollier methodically works his way from one side to the other cutting several feet off of the bottom.
It’s a pattern he’ll get used to in the next few weeks in between getting cabins ready for family and crewmembers to come to the Cook Inlet and fish the 27 nets the family own.
Gather the net, lift, cut the strands.
Gather the net, lift, cut, take a step, do it all again.
He’ll fish 24 nets this season — Hollier plans to sell a permit and generate revenue to offset the cost of fuel and supplies this year — and of those, he plans to shorten 12 of them, by hand, by himself.
Hollier estimates each net will take about five hours of labor to cut and mend at the new length.
“I’ve got $150,000 worth of boats out here and I’m not going to hire crew to be able to fish the fishing season,” he said. “I don’t want to go out and buy brand new $500 shallow nets to fish here.”
A deep net, the kind Hollier usually fishes, runs 45 meshes or about 18 foot in length. From “lead to corks” as he puts it.
A 29 mesh deep net, one that Hollier is cutting to, is about 12 feet deep.
“So, at slack tide we’re all fishing either 18 foot, or these nets will fish 12 foot deep,” Hollier said. “When the tide starts running, our gear collapses and maybe we’re only fishing five or six feet deep anyway, so it’s not really going to make a difference when the die is running. Maybe I’ll be fishing just as deep, or maybe deeper with a shallow net, who knows? I’m going to find out.”
Either way, at slack tide, Hollier said he’ll definitely be fishing shallower than the setnetters around him and maybe the result will be fewer king salmon rolling into his nets. That is, if the king salmon are running on the bottom of the inlet as has been suggested in state Board of Fisheries meetings and floated around as rumor for several years in the Cook Inlet.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where in his nets the kings are hitting as the mesh size he uses targets red salmon, much smaller than a king salmon, so when they hit, they roll up in the middle of the net.
Still, avoiding the contentious king salmon altogether might be possible by fishing a shallower net.
“Is this study going to be scientific? No. Am I going to know something pretty concrete? I think so,” he said.
If he can save some kings and keep at least 80 percent of the red salmon he targets, Hollier said he’ll cut down all of his nets next year.
Hollier isn’t the only one on the beach modifying his gear.
Greg Johnson, owner of another large setnet operation north of the Blanchard Line, is chopping three of his 18 nets down by 12 feet as well.
Part of the motivation for Johnson is purely logistical.
“Where I’m at, because of rocks (on the bottom), it’ll help me be more efficient,” Johnson said.
Both Hollier and Johnson struggle at low tide to keep their nets from getting hung up along the bottom.
“So we’ve got to get our boats underneath all of them and pick nets out and taken them over the rocks, and there’s a few really bad ones that I throw some shallow (nets) on every year,” Hollier said.
Using shallower nets will save manpower, something Hollier sorely needs, as he’ll be hiring four to five fewer crewmembers than he normally does this season.
Johnson, who has fished on the Columbia River and in the Copper River delta where he can target king salmon, thinks it’s possible that kings run along the bottom in the Cook Inlet as they occasionally do in the freshwater where his fishes.
“However, this is a salt water fishery in open water, does that affect their behavior? I can’t say, but in every other fishery up and down the coast there are times — during different tide stages — when you will find them in parts of the bottom and then during slack tides they will rise off the bottom,” he said.
The issue is further complicated, Johnson said, by the fact that Cook Inlet commercial fishermen don’t target king salmon and have not had to modify their gear to try and capture kings.
“There are things you could do if you wanted to target kings, but all of our energy for most fishermen goes into, ‘How am I going to catch the most sockeye?’
“Some of the things that I’m suggesting do occur in other fisheries, I can’t say with specificity here because I’ve never targeted Chinook here,” Johnson said.
The question of where kings run when they head up the inlet to spawn has been one that has plagued fishermen and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists for decades.
Last year, Fish and Game researchers spent a month of the season catching king salmon in the inlet and implanting radio tags with the ultimate goal of deploying an array of sensors along the bottom of the inlet to track tagged kings.
While there’s no guarantee that any of this research will generate results that could be used to justify a permanent modification of setnet gear lowering king salmon harvest and keeping red salmon harvest at historical levels, Hollier said something’s got to give.
“I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the department this year in one, counting kings — in the last two years we’ve lost (our season) and then in December they tell us that we made our (king salmon) goal,” he said. “That doesn’t make me feel very good. And two, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of kings coming back.
“I’m trying to stay in the game for myself, my kids and my grandkids and if this does it, I’ll do it in a heart beat.”
At the very least, Hollier knows he’ll catch fewer king salmon; he’ll be catching fewer salmon overall.
“It’s just a function of physics, shallow water at slack tide we’re fishing six foot less of nets.”