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Fish board meeting touches on Cook Inlet, Kenai River issues

Posted: October 12, 2013 - 7:08pm  |  Updated: October 12, 2013 - 7:44pm

GIRDWOOD — Alaska’s Board of Fisheries touched on Cook Inlet issues as it prepared for the upcoming meeting season at a work session this week.

The Oct. 9 and 10 meeting included a preliminary report on stock of concern designations and escapement goals in Cook Inlet and elsewhere, and requests to add additional issues to the board’s agenda for the year — including a brief discussion on using dipnets as legal gear in commercial fisheries that foreshadowed consideration of that plan for Kenai Peninsula fishermen this winter.

The fish board is responsible for making certain fisheries management policy decisions for the state, including setting seasons, bag limits, methods and means for fisheries, and making allocation decisions.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is responsible for day-to-day fisheries management, based on the direction provided by the board.

The fish board manages state fisheries on a three-year cycle, and Lower and Upper Cook Inlet are on the calendar for December 2013 and January 2013, respectively.

This cycle, the board will also talk about Pacific cod in October, Chignik finfish in December, Kodiak finfish in January, and king and tanner crab in March.

The focus of the work session was hearing proposals for out-of-cycle issues that Fish and Game and stakeholders wanted the board to discuss at one of those meetings, in the form of agenda change requests, or ACRs.

The board rejected an ACR to consider allowing dipnets instead of gillnets or seines on a statewide basis, but discussed allowing it area by area, citing the Kenai Peninsula in particular.

Last January, the board opted to allow Yukon River fishermen to use dipnets in the commercial chum fishery as a way to conserve king salmon. Former board member Virgil Umphenour brought forward the ACR to allow dipnets statewide, noting that in other rivers, like the Kuskokwim, Kenai and Karluk, king concerns have resulted in commercial fishing restrictions.

The state’s Department of Law advised the board, in response to a question from board Chair Karl Johnstone, that such a proposal could be considered at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting even though a proposal to do so has not been submitted.

Johnstone cited the east side setnet fishery as a specific location where dipnets could be a useful tool to replace gillnets when managers are concerned about king salmon but still want to provide opportunity to harvest sockeyes.

An allowance for that could come forward at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting either as a board generated proposal or in substitute language when another proposal is being discussed.

The meeting also included preliminary salmon escapement goal and stock of concern reports for the regions on the schedule this year, including Lower and Upper Cook Inlet.

Escapement goals are the number of fish needed to return to a river to spawn.

For the upper inlet, the biggest change is on Crescent River. The department is recommending dropping the sockeye salmon goal there, because the run is no longer being assessed. The Crescent River is on the west side of Cook Inlet, and one of the larger sockeye runs in the inlet.

The department operated a sonar on the Crescent to gauge the sockeye return through 2012, but no longer has the funding to do so.

The department also recommended a change to the Jim Creek coho goal, which would expand the upper end of the range. Jim Creek is near Palmer, in the Northern District. The expanded range was the result of adding the 2001-2009 escapement data into the analysis, Fish and Game’s Lowell Fair said. During those years, larger escapements resulted in large returns.

Last year the department reviewed the Kenai River escapements out of cycle, and changed the early and late run king goals, so no changes are recommended this year.

Fish and Game also looked at stock of concern designations. Generally, a run must miss its escapement goal to receive the designation.

Currently, the Upper Cook Inlet stock of concern designations belong to Northern District waterways, and the department recommended adding stock of management concern designations for Goose and Sheep creeks, both in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

No stock of concern changes were recommended for the rest of Cook Inlet, although the department updated its analysis of the Kenai River based on the most recent escapements, which showed that a designation was not warranted at this time.

For Lower Cook Inlet, Fish and Game recommended two escapement changes. At Mikfik Lake, on the southwest side of the inlet, the department said the new sockeye salmon goal should have an expanded range, and be based on video counts rather than an aerial survey because that’s how the run was assessed in 2013.

For Dogfish Lagoon Creeks, southeast of Homer, Fish and Game recommended adding a pink salmon goal. Fair said there has been increased effort targeting those fish because of an improving market for pinks, and a goal would the department manage the fishery.

The escapement goals and stock of concern designations will come back up at the Cook Inlet meetings.

After the department’s preliminary escapement goal report for Lower Cook Inlet, Johnstone said he has also asked Fish and Game to provide actual escapement numbers for each stock for the past several years “so we can more intelligently determine whether or not some should be considered stocks of concern.”

Fish and Game’s Charlie Swanton, director of the division of sport fish, talked about the status of other ongoing projects, including a peer review of the Kenai River escapement goals, an acoustic study and work upstream of the current sonar location.

The Kenai reviews didn’t find any fatal flaws and supported the department, he said. Information from the reviews will likely be available to the public later in October or in November, Swanton said, and reports on the other projects should be available before the Upper Cook Inlet meeting begins Jan. 31.

A coalition of Cook Inlet users, however, signed a memorandum of agreement asking Fish and Game to release the escapement goal reports, acoustic and sonar reports and other information about research and management activity by December 15. Signatories included South K-Beach Independent Setnet Association’s Paul Shadura, Alaska Salmon Alliance Executive Director Arni Thomson, Cook Inlet fisherman Roland Maw, and others.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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