Emotions ran high Wednesday as the Alaska Board of Fisheries deliberated a board-member generated proposal that outlined a new plan to pair restrictions between commercial setnet fishermen and in-river fishers who harvest the struggling Kenai River king salmon stock.
As it became clear during deliberations that the board would be making substantive changes to the way the commercial setnet fisheries occur in July and August, more members of the group stood and moved away from the board to the back of the hall leaving the vast majority of the audience seats empty.
The restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery, if fully actuated, could result in a 50 percent reduction in effort causing an unknown reduction in sockeye harvest — the salmon species primarily targeted by the group.
Board member Tom Kluberton, board member from Talkeetna who introduced the new language, called the new management “severe restrictions” later during the meeting.
The language amends the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan to include “step-down measures” that board members said were meant to be paired with step-down measures in the in-river fishery when king salmon stocks are returning in low numbers.
According to the new plan, from July 1 to July 31, if the in-river return is projected to be fewer than 22,500 fish — the midpoint of the current escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may limit the sportfishery to no bait, or catch-and-release fishing and the East Side setnet fishery will be capped at 36 hours per week.
Under the plan, if the in-river fishery is restricted to catch-and-release, setnetters will be limited to only one 12-hour period per week rather than the two regular 12-hour periods.
The 2014 preseason forecast for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon is estimated at 6.1 million fish across all rivers and streams, with 1.8 million needed for escapement, leaving 4.3 million available for harvest, or about 500,000 more fish than the 20-year average.
Under the old plan and if the 2014 forecast were to materialize, setnetters would have had up to 74 hours per week available to fish a sockeye run of that size. The plan also includes setnet gear reduction options that include potential limits on the number or size of the nets in the water.
When the fishery transitions into Aug. 1 — the date the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan ceases to apply — the projected escapement of king salmon into the Kenai River must be more than 22,500 fish or commercial set gillnet fishers will be restricted to 36 hours total for the two-week period.
Kluberton said he submitted the proposed changes after years of discussion with fishers who have been struggling to find a balance in harvest of abundant sockeye salmon when king salmon stocks are limited.
The move could allocate sockeye salmon out of the commercial fishery in order to limit the group’s harvest of king salmon, said Paul A. Shadura, an East Side setnet fisherman.
After the meeting, Shadura said that depending on the timing of the restrictions, sockeye from both the Kasilof River and the Kenai River would be removed from the setnet harvest as fishers remained on the beach, waiting for the chance to open under the heavy time restrictions.
“This is allocative. That’s our job,” said Board of Fisheries Chairman Karl Johnstone.
Tracy Lingnau, Central Regional Supervisor for ADFG, said the 1,500 fish buffer that had been built into the August setnet fishery was more of a foregone harvest situation.
Technically, those 1,500 kings would be taken out of the setnet fishers’ allocation of kings, however the inriver sport fishers stop targeting kings on July 31 and are therefore not benefitting from the foregone harvest, he said.
The allocation was an “unavoidable consequence” of protecting vulnerable Kenai River king salmon stock for Kluberton.
“We’re being asked to turn a blind eye to kings and we just can’t do that,” he said after the meeting. “Our first priority is conservation.”
During later testimony, Kluberton reminded the audience several times that ADFG could use emergency order authority to liberalize the setnet fishery.
However, Jim Butler, a commercial setnet fisher and representative of the commercial fishing advocacy group the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said he did not believe the loss of fishing opportunity was being shared equally between the commercial and in-river users.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk about pairing the burdens of dealing with this perceived conservation problem,” Butler said. “Now what we’ve seen is 50 percent of the opportunity that the East Side setnet fishery has, goes away. There has been nothing in the river that been changed except ‘not-bait.’ There’s been not one less motorboat day, not one more drift boat day, there has been no limitation on the number of hours the commercial guide industry fishes.”
Butler said he did not believe ADFG would open the setnet fishery for more hours in August until it reached the in-river return of 22,500 fish.
According to the ADFG preseason outlook for the late run of Kenai River king salmon, the total run is expected to be 19,700 fish.
“They put another 7,000 fish in the recommended goal for the river in August,” Butler said. “They’ve taken away the department’s management flexibility.”
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a sportfishing advocacy group, said the board’s changes were necessary to protect king salmon.
“We support what the board did, it’s an important addition to the management plan,” he said.
Both Kluberton and board member Reed Morisky from Fairbanks said during deliberations that they supported the gear restriction options available to setnetters and welcomed new data that would come from some fishers using shorter nets.
There has been ongoing debate in public testimony and private commentary during the meeting on the lack of consistent data on whether king salmon run lower in the water column than sockeye salmon and could avoid being intercepted if setnetters were to use shallower nets.
Kluberton said new rules incentivized the use of shallower nets.
Morisky said the king salmon are too important to risk the health of the stock.
“What we’re talking about here is the state fish of Alaska. It’s not an Arctic grayling, it’s not a chum, it’s the king salmon … it’s our state symbol and we’ve taken it down to next to nothing,” he said. “These salmon have a great capability of springing back. If we manage this right, we could have our runs back and we could be trying to figure out what we’re going to do with a great abundance of kings and reds.”
The board action Wednesday increasing the in-river threshold for management decisions was a sharp turnaround from what took place the previous day.
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 or pleading their cases to board members who stayed behind to listen to the criticism of the decision.
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.
Kluberton, one of four who voted in favor of raising the goal from its current range of 15,000 to 30,000 fish to 16,600 to 30,000, motioned to reconsider when the Board of Fisheries reconvened.
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 ADFG managers had already put into place.
Tuesday, however, when board member Sue Jeffrey suggested lowering the bottom end of the projected escapement from 16,500 to 15,000 needed in August to lift restrictions from the setnet fishery, Kluberton did not support the amendment.
He said he lacked confidence in the department’s ability to count king salmon in its new sonar program on the Kenai River.
“I just don’t feel that it is reasonable... to try and call it down to the bone at this time,” he said. “That might be something that changes when I see the (ADFG) approaching perfection in their enumeration. But I don’t feel that we should be managing to the lower end of the goal in the first place, especially when we’ve got a stock that’s on the edge or in decline as it is.”
Kluberton said he wanted to see a safety zone built into ADFG’s management, Wednesday during board deliberations.
“I would personally prefer to keep that 1,500 fish buffer in there ... I just don’t feel that I have the comfort level. We still have in that escapement and that run reconstruction, there’s still a 28 percent factor thrown in there for fish swimming behind the sonar. Signs are showing we’re getting better, but I don’t think we’ve perfected it to the extent that I’m comfortable.”
Several setnetters said they did not understand why their fishery was being so severely restricted without an increase in restrictions on inriver fishers.
Robert Williams, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, a commercial setnet advocacy group, said the idea of changing gear fishermen had been using for many decades was not supportable and was an imprecise management tool because ADFG could not quantify how many, if any, fish would be saved.
“There’s no data, there have been no tests,” he said. “There is no data whatsoever that says what will happen with shorter nets or fewer nets.”
The 750 setnet permits in the Cook Inlet are also fished differently depending on the terrain of the beach site, he said.
“There are too many variables. There are just too many variables to even know what just happened,” Williams said. “The other thing that really bugged me was — there was no action taken to ensure that these fish that we move through are going to adequately spawn or have any protection whatsoever.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.