Update Tuesday Feb. 4: Board of Fish member Tom Kluberton motioned to reconsider the Board of Fisheries vote and that motion was passed. Subsequently, the board voted down the new goal.
After three hours of debate and several off-the-record conversations with an increasingly agitated audience — some wiping away tears as they spoke to board members — the Alaska Board of Fisheries increased the escapement goal for late-run king salmon on the Kenai River.
After the vote, members of the sportfishing advocacy organization that submitted the original proposal and the large group of commercial setnet fishers in the audience who face the possibility of reduced fishing time next season were united in their lack of enthusiasm for the result.
Next summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will be tasked with trying to ensure that between 16,600 and 30,000 late run kings return to the Kenai River. That’s more than the previous escapement goal, set by ADFG at 15,000 to 30,000 last March.
The new goal passed in a 4-3 vote, with board members Tom Kluberton, Karl Johnstone, Reed Morisky and Orville Huntington voting in favor.
After the meeting however, Kluberton and Huntington met with a large group of aggravated commercial fishermen and Kluberton said he would motion to reconsider the vote during Tuesday’s meeting which — if passed — will reopen the debate.
At issue is an escapement goal range on the Kenai River that some users believe is too low, and others believe is adequate to sustain a healthy run of king salmon.
An escapement goal is the number of spawning fish returning to the river that managers think will result in the strongest future runs of fish.
The two types of goals being discussed were the current sustainable escapement goal, set by ADFG and confirmed by the board of 15,000-30,000, and the new optimum escapement goal. That goal can be set by the board and generally includes additional fish for in-river harvest, according to the state’s definition of optimum escapement goals.
To reach the new goal range, ADFG will adjust fishing opportunity throughout the season for sport anglers who target kings, as well as commercial fishermen targeting sockeyes, who also catch some kings in their nets.
Commercial area management biologist Pat Shields told board members that a jump in 1,500 fish could have represented a significant loss to the commercial setnet fishery during the 2013 season.
He took the 1,500 king salmon and divvied the potential loss in harvest between the commercial and sport fishery — about 750 fish to each.
“In the last year, we would have lost the last three periods, we wouldn’t have been able to fish and that would have made about 250,000 sockeye salmon which would not have been harvested to save those 750 king salmon,” Shields said.
Megan Smith, a Cook Inlet eastside setnetter, said she appreciated the department breaking down the 2013 season to figure out what the change would mean for fishermen. She supported the original escapement goal.
“They use the best available data and science,” she said.
Board member Fritz Johnson said he opposed the change based partially on his rough calculations of the amount of money it would cost setnetters.
“250,000 five-pound sockeye is 1.25 million pounds at $2 a pound is roughly $2.5 million dollars which, if you divided that by 600 setnet permit holders, that’s about $4,000 a permit holder,” he said. “The numbers that we’re talking about here are slim at best, but the impact to the setnet fishery, I think, is significant.”
The board had two proposals to consider that would have adjusted the goal, and ultimately chose a different number entirely.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, proposed an optimal escapement goal of 20,000 to 40,000 kings while Scott Miller, owner of Soldotna’s Trustworthy Hardware, a major supplier of fishing gear to local and visiting sportfishermen, proposed a goal of 17,800 to 35,700. No action was taken on that proposal, because the amended KRSA proposal passed.
Kevin Delaney, a fishery biology consultant for KRSA, said the group felt 20,000 to 40,000 as an escapement goal range was a “scientifically appropriate goal,” but the group did not want to argue for a goal that would keep everyone from fishing.
“The board has spoken so now we have to go do the best we can,” he said after the vote.
Prior to settling on 16,600 the board discussed new goals of 16,500 and 17,500, but ultimately selected the middle number.
Board members also referenced other concerns with the current goal of 15,000 before making their decision.
Kluberton said that additional fish in the river would help provide a buffer for the increasing number of jack king salmon seen entering the river, which are not as productive at spawning as larger male kings.
He also talked about other river systems, where the board has taken a more precautionary approach when it is setting a goal lower than escapements that ADFG has previously recorded.
The original escapement goal was based on a run reconstruction. Peer reviewers generally supported the model behind it, but runs as low as 15,000 kings have not occurred recently, and the department has not seen what actually returns at those levels.
Ray Beamesderfer, the fisheries science consultant who helped KRSA develope its goal range, said the board’s action appeared to respond to that issue.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty whenever we’re below the range where we’ve been before,” he said.
Beamesderfer said the board’s action reflected concerns about the ability to hit the range precisely, and a fear that if the final escapement came in below the 15,000 number, future returns could be compromised.
“Fishery management is a shotgun, not a rifle,” Beamesderfer said. Having managers aim a little higher than the target gives them a better chance of hitting it, he said.
In supporting a higher goal, Johnstone also mentioned that while he supported ADFG, there is competing science about the escapement goal and the numbers behind it.
Board member Sue Jeffrey, who voted against the final range, said that the sustainable salmon fisheries policy calls for the board to consider the best available economic information, as well as biological factors.
The board also deliberated on proposals to change or rescind the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management plan, but none passed. The board is meeting in Anchorage to discuss changes to Upper Cook Inlet finfish fisheries as part of its regular three-year cycle.
Discussion of king salmon proposals will continue at 8 a.m. today.
Reach Rashah MCChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org and Molly Dischner at email@example.com.