Story update: Department of Fish and Game commercial fishery managers issued an emergency order Thursday to extend the Kasilof section setnet opening an additional 2 hours, to 9 p.m. According to the department's commercial fishing information line, the decision was based on strong escapement of sockeye salmon into the Kasilof River and reports of good catches from setnetters. The driftnet opening also was extended.
A last-minute decision within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a deviation from how area biologists have traditionally communicated with commercial fishermen has Kasilof setnetters concerned about how the rest of their season will be managed.
At issue are extra “discretionary” hours sometimes given to commercial fishermen that allow for extra fishing time in instances where it is deemed necessary for the safety of fishermen, or when enough sockeye are running that it necessary to harvest as many as possible.
Thursday is the first regularly scheduled opening for setnet fishermen in the Kasilof Section of the East Side Setnet Fishery and the timing of the high and low tides means many of them will have to pull their nets from the water early, or risk trying to pull fish from them at a time when the tide is running fast enough that much of their gear will be underwater.
The opener is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and in the past when the tides have not been favorable, the Fish and Game has designated extra hours to allow fishermen enough time to pick their nets on the slack tide when the water is lower and not running as hard.
Area management biologist Pat Shields said the department had considered designating two extra hours of fishing time to allow setnetters to fish the full flood tide.
“The department was leaning strongly toward providing additional time ... upon further consideration, chose to stay with just the regular period,” Shields said.
Still, word had gotten out among Kasilof Section fishermen that they would most likely be allowed to fish those extra hours. Without them, some said they would have to severely limit their fishing time.
“It’s not safe,” said Todd Smith, setnetter. “I think it changes (at sites) up and down the beaches, some places that don’t fish near as much gear will wait and try and pull in the middle of the tide.”
But for Smith, whose family fishes 12 nets, he’ll have to start pulling his nets out of the water at 5 p.m. to get them out by the deadline — a time when water will be screaming by as the flood tide reaches its peak just after 7 p.m.
“The nets are pulled so tight that you can barely pull them out of the water, god forbid there’s actually fish in there,” he said.
An extra two hours would have meant being able to pull his nets on a slack tide and take a larger portion of a red salmon run that has been jumping in the Kasilof section for days.
Nearly 87,000 red salmon — or about half of the Kasilof’s minimum goal— have made it up into the river according to Fish and Game sonar counts.
Shields said he has been answering calls from setnetters for the last two months from fishermen planning for the opener and wanting to know if they would have time to pull their nets safely.
“That’s a very common thing and an expected thing and they call and they just want to know,” Shields said.
During the busiest period of the season, Shields says he often tells fishermen he doesn’t know in advance and they have to wait until he can sit down and plan it out — usually he issues discretionary hours the day of the opener.
“It’s just unique in that it’s the first period of the year and everybody has had a long time to look at it,” he said.
Shields said he had been telling fishermen that the department was leaning toward extending the period.
“It wasn’t an official communication, although typically that information is communicated a bit earlier than the order is issued,” he said. “Usually we’re just cranking out the orders, decisions are being made on the fly as we consider ‘are the fish here, are the fish not here.’ Once (fishermen) are in the water we can sit down and look at the tides and determine when they should come out.”
Mark Doner, who fishes with his two brothers and several other family members in the district, said he has been calling area management biologists for several decades to find out about discretionary hours when tides do not match up with when he is supposed to pull his nets from the water.
“Those guys, they’ve got these numbers and this data input all over the place ... that’s their job is to manage the fishery to maximize commercial harvest of sockeye, that’s what they’re trying to do and they want to give us that,” he said.
But at some point in the last week, it was decided that the department would not be issuing any extra hours, partially because the decision is no longer left up to the area management biologists.
Shields said in years when there was no concern about dwindling numbers of king salmon, the use of discretionary hours was largely left up to area managers.
“When you get into a king issue, then it requires both (sport and commercial) divisions and multiple staff to wrestle about whether any group should have extra hours,” he said. “The process is different this year, it’s going to receive a higher level of scrutiny. All decisions this year — as long has kings remain an issue — are going to be made in staff meetings where all the staff are involved.”
It is unclear who made the final decision not to allow Kasilof setnetters any extra time. Calls to Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and director of the commercial fishing division Jeff Regnart were not returned.
Smith said he was considering not fishing the flood tide which, for his sites, means not catching as many fish as the flood tide is when most of the fish he catches surge through the inlet.
He’s frustrated, he said, by the idea that decisions were being made in Juneau and not at the local and regional level by Fish and Game staff.
“That decision should have been made (Thursday) when (managers) look at their preliminary catch, when guys like me are calling and saying ‘There’s a lot of fish,’” he said. “Traditionally I would be on the phone at noon ... looking to see if I’m going to get that extra two hours or if I’m going to have to pull at low tide ... for me it’s out of the ordinary to know that it’s not even an option. I’ve always thought that they made decisions inseason and with the most recent data.”
Tim Doner said the decision not to allow an extra two hours of time makes him wonder how he’ll be fished for the rest of the season.
Last year, East Side setnetters were largely shut out of the fishing season and the Cook Inlet received a resource disaster designation from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce after low returns of king salmon prompted several closures.
“I’m going to push it as far as I can because I feel like this may be my last opportunity to fish,” he said.
He said the tide problem would be compounded by the lingering effects of last year’s season.
“People are so cash strapped from last year, they’d do just about anything to catch another fish, so they’re going to leave their nets in as long as they can and they’re going to fish as much as they can,” he said. “I think people are going to push it and when they do that, especially with some green crews and it being the first day of the year and all the other unknowns that go with it ... it isn’t safe.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.