ANCHORAGE — Someone always loses in the battle between salmon allocation and conservation regulations in the Upper Cook Inlet.
Late Monday, Alaska’s Board of Fisheries agreed to raise the escapement goal for the late run of Kenai River king salmon, voted and adjourned for the evening, enraging many commercial fishers in the room who then split into small, animated groups arguing with others in the conference room at the Egan Center or pleading their cases to board members who stayed behind to listen to the criticism their decision wrought.
But, by 9 a.m. Tuesday, the same board shifted 180 degrees and voted on a motion to reconsider that left inriver guides and sport users in the same place their commercial fishing counterparts had been just the night before.
Even some in the commercial fishing community were unsure of what to make of the sudden reversal.
“We’ll see what comes next,” said Chris Every, a commercial setnetter who fishes sites immediately south of the mouth of the Kenai River.
Tom Kluberton, board member from Talkeetna and one of four who voted in favor of raising the goal from its current range of 15,000-30,000 fish to 16,600-30,000 motioned to reconsider when the Board of Fisheries convened at 8 a.m. to continue the nearly two-week meeting on a host of fish-releated issues affecting the Cook Inlet.
Kluberton, who had used the idea of providing a “buffer” for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game against putting too few fish in the river under the current escapement goal, reversed his opinion.
“What was brought to my attention last night alleviated those concerns by way of realizing that the department is ... they’re learning. They’ve got a new approach to managing this run. We have technology on the rivers that is changing and what I’ve learned is that they have adjusted their methodology,” he said. “... I feel the board is not in a position at this point to have to add that extra bit.”
He said he did not want to interfere with what the ADFG managers had already put into place, a sentiment Every had expressed immediately after Monday’s vote.
“The thing that bothers me is that it’s a $200 million department that we asked to manage our fisheries,” he said. “$200 million. They’ve got the science. They’ve got the know-how. They’ve got the expertise and I don’t know what’s happened to our state system, or this process, but we’ve allowed this group of seven people — that are good people — we give them the power to change the numbers within the escapement goals. ... It’s just frustrating to me.”
But while Every was even slightly mollified by the board’s reconsideration, several others in the room were not, including Kenai River Professional Guide Association president Steve McClure.
The sportfishing guides have as much, if not more, to lose than setnet users when the escapement goal is raised he said, because the recent low returns of kings would likely close the river to sportfishing as quickly as it would pull nets out of water.
“When we came here last year for the state meeting and the 15,000 number came out, our association thought, ‘Man, that’s just too low,’” he said. “Lower than we’ve ever been. We’ve never had an escapement number like that. We were disappointed then and then we came out with the forecast and there’s not a lot of surplus fish. We know that. By raising the goal to 16,600 ... we knew that we would probably be more likely to get restricted, but we were happy about it.”
McClure said he’d like to see a higher escapement goal.
When the board motion to reconsider was voted upon, two members, Chairman Karl Johnstone and Reed Morisky, a board member from Fairbanks, remained in support of the higher goal.
The original proposal to create a new goal on the Kenai River was submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and called for the board to create an escapement goal of 20,000 to 40,000 kings.
However, Kevin Delaney, a fisheries biology consultant for the sportfishing association said during his committee testimony that the group did not want to argue for a goal that would keep everyone from fishing.
The late run of Kenai River king salmon is forecasted to come in at 19,715 fish, just shy of the lower end of the KRSA proposal range. If it is realized and just 19,715 fish return, the inriver sport fishers, guides and commercial setnet fishers would likely be kept out of water as ADFG managers tried to reach the proposed escapement goal range.
During his morning comments in opposition to changing the board’s vote on the goal, Johnstone said it had been his experience that when an organization voices lukewarm support for its own proposal, it fails.
In the weeks leading up to the Board of Fisheries meeting, the sportfishing association mounted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in at least 250 people voicing support for the organization’s proposals. The vast majority of the comments supported raising the Kenai River king salmon escapement goal.
“The author, I was under the assumption, was concerned about conservation,” Johnstone said. “... Then, all of the sudden, the forecast came out so there weren’t as many as we hoped there could be ... at that time, it wasn’t quite as convenient to have this proposal on the table so the support wavered.”
Johnstone said he believed he had been tasked with “protecting the fish.”
“I believe now that we’re looking at it, we’re now concerned more about (fishing) opportunity, than we are about the fish,” he said. “Those people that wrote the letters are going to be disappointed, I’m disappointed.”
Despite the reversal, setnetter Gary Hollier said damage had still been done to the Board of Fisheries process.
“A lot of people came to this board with some solutions, trying to put our community back together because it really has been divided over this sport-commercial conflict,” he said. “What the board did yesterday, it kind of tipped a lot of commercial fishermen over the top when they changed to an (escapement goal) that wasn’t based on available science ... thank goodness some smarter people prevailed and they reconsidered and now it’s gone. But it did some damage to people that are trying to come here and find some common ground.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org.