Editor's note: This article was corrected to reflect the net length allowed to Cook Inlet setnetters.
ANCHORAGE — Change is hard. The evolution of commercial setnetting in the Cook Inlet is no different.
As king salmon runs continue to decline, keeping nets out of the water and fishers off the Kenai River, the East Side Setnet Fishery has seen its time reduced, gear restricted and full-on closure in the past few years as Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers struggle to put enough fish in the river to keep the stock healthy.
In the chaos of closure and the subsequent disaster declaration, some of the longest-running commercial fishers in the Cook Inlet decided it was time for a change.
Gary Hollier has known he has a king salmon problem for some years. The 43-year veteran of the commercial fishing in the inlet watched red salmon jump on the beach in 2012 when the setnet fleet was largely shut out of its season.
So, he bought some twine and spent his time before the 2013 fishing season, holed up in his shop cutting foot after foot from his nets. He shortened about half of the 24 nets he and his crew fished last season.
At five hours of modification time per net, the task was daunting.
Staff at ADFG gave Hollier logbooks and he kept track of how many red salmon and how many king salmon he caught in his nets, how deep the net was and the stage of the tide.
“We tried to be as accurate as we could,” Hollier said. “So if all my compliment of nets would have been shallow nets, I’m saying I would have conservatively had a savings of 50 percent.”
It’s a reduction in red salmon as well, but Hollier is all about business when he talks about the experimentation.
“We’re in a tough situation, Board of Fish is in a tough situation, all users are in a tough situation. We need to fish when the reds are there and keep our sockeye to king ratio high. Last year on our peak day, we averaged 1151 reds per king,” Hollier said. “I think that I need to make money fishing reds, if I never caught a king it would be too soon.”
While one year of data cannot paint an accurate picture of how setnetters harvest their fish — it was enough for Hollier to make the leap and modify the rest of his gear.
It proved to be a prudent investment as the Alaska Board of Fisheries imposed a new set of restrictions on the setnet fishery designed to pair restrictions between the commercial fishermen and their inriver counterparts when king salmon runs are low.
Part of the discussion over the new restriction included a new study provided to the board by a private research company, Kintama, which contracted with ADFG to catch and tag king and sockeye salmon to track the movement of the fish.
While the sample size was small, preliminary data suggested that king salmon could be moving lower in the water column than red salmon.
Under the new regulations, setnetters who voluntarily choose to use shallower nets will be able to fish more gear if certain restrictions to the fishery are issued by ADFG.
For Hollier, even if the fishery rebounds and king salmon stocks return in such abundance that he can again fish on them without worrying about being restricted, the shallower nets will remain his tool of choice.
“I don’t think I will because after 45 years in the business, I think we are truly impacted by harvest of kings,” he said. “Obviously I’m going to catch 50 percent of my kings in shallow gear and I’m going to take them and sell them because that’s what we’re allowed to do. It’s not bycatch, it’s not incidental catch, it’s salmon that my SO4H permit lets me catch, keep and sell.”
Special Harvest Modules
Brent Johnson stood in front of a room full of Cook Inlet fishers Thursday and explained his experimental $5,000 investment in a tool he calls a special harvest module.
The contraption takes up 210 feet from buoy to buoy, in the middle 100 feet of seine net juts out into the water.
One setnetter gets 105 fathoms of net, typically they are fished in a pattern of three 35 fathom lengths or 210 feet. A dual permit holder is allowed 210 fathoms of net.
It’s odd looking and Johnson, who fishes a large family operation in Clam Gulch, said it’s not good at catching sockeye so far.
According to his proposal the module was fished on two different days and caught no fish on the first day and 27 on the second day, all of which were rolled out of the net without harm — though several smaller sockeye and pink salmon were captured in the mesh of the nets.
Johnson used 3.5-inch mesh, about the size that he was told pink salmon used. Still, he wants to get smaller net to try during the 2014 season.
The idea, he said, is to corral fish into the net opening so the harvester can pick out the king salmon and send the fish on its way, while harvesting the rest of the catch.
Johnson has a proposal set to be deliberated this week at the Board of Fisheries meetings which would allow his selective harvest modules to be used to commercially harvest salmon in a portion of the Cook Inlet.
It was designed to encourage others to try variations of his set up.
“I have built houses and boats and stoves and snowplows and all that stuff and every time I do it I go, ‘oh, I should have done it this way,’ I see things that I could have done differently,” Johnson said. “I want more people than just me doing this. I don’t corner the market on intelligence and that’s what we need is a lot of heads.”
Johnson doubts his proposal will be approved, its too far reaching with too few details.
“I realize the department is going to be pretty leery of how wild these other ideas can be because ... we don’t want to be killing king salmon when we’re trying to save them,” he said. “I want some flexibility for people for when we’re trying to devise a method to not catch kings and harvest sockeye ... I would like to have some flexibility so that, as other people work on this, they can use some of their own ideas.”
Barring approval of his proposal, Johnson said he’d like to be able to sell the fish he catches this year.
Under the special permit Johnson was granted to test his harvest module in 2013, he was not allowed to keep any of the fish caught on days when the setnetters were not allowed in the water, according to ADFG data on the permit.
“To pay for the cost of doing this because obviously I can’t afford to continue to spend $5,000 on that sort of thing,” he said.
Salmon release pods
Ted Crookston has been fishing in the Cook Inlet for 50 years.
But it’s just in the last few that it became obvious to him, he said, that something was going to have to change.
“I can’t afford these kings anymore. I don’t want them. They’re too expensive,” Crookston said. “We are a sockeye fishery, just a fraction of our catch are kings.”
So, Crookston created a pod designed to allow setnetters to roll live kings out of their nets and into a holding tank where the fish could be released after the fishing day had ended — clearing the way for the fish to swim toward its home river unmolested.
He and one other site tested the pods during the 2013 fishing season and though the success rate was relatively low — Crookston is ready to make some changes and try again in the 2014 season.
“The season was so short and we only had six days,” he said. “On three of them we were so slammed with sockeye and there were no kings so we couldn’t experiment with them. The three days that we did was enough to learn some key elements.”
Among those elements were that the pods need to be buoyed to keep the kings horizontal.
Travis Every, a commercial setnetter who fishes the first set of sites south of the Kenai River experimented with Crookston’s pods last season as well.
“The theory was, you have this thing in your boat with you. If a king comes in, you put it in a tube, put it back in the water,” Every said.
Though the theory was good, logistically it did not play out.
“I can’t say, ‘no it doesn’t work.’ I tried to fish that thing four out of those six days. The results were totally inconclusive,” he said.
In addition, being able to handle a pod while picking a net proved difficult for Every, who said he will not be experimenting with them again.
Crookston, however, is expanding on the idea.
“I’m leaning toward a second phase now where there would be a floating pod that the fishermen have ... if you get a king, you’d just have a small holding tank in your boat with some fresh seawater in it and then you just move it right into that holding tank,” he said.
But the tank could wind up costing a few thousand dollars.
“But that’s not a lot of money, you’d only have to buy one,” he said. “I think if our fishing industry can develop the attitude that these kings are something that we make every effort to protect and avoid, it’s a good thing.”
Each of the three innovators has taken a fair amount of flack from within the commercial fishing community — especially from those who do not believe setnet gear should have to be modified.
“I talked about it at a (Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association) meeting and there was a lot of griping and moaning and ‘the next thing you know, every time we get a king we’re going to have to put it in one of your pods.’ There was resistance,” Crookston said. “People don’t like change, but I think we can make a substantial improvement.”
During public testimony at the Board of Fisheries meeting, several fishers openly scowled at Hollier during his testimony on modifying his nets.
“Am I trying to push this on everybody? No. I think this is coming,” he said. “The setnet fishery would not be very astute if they didn’t think that gear modifications are coming.”
In fact — Johnson said he would be changing his nets for the 2014 season.
Ultimately, each will do what they have to do to make a living in the fishery, Hollier said.
“I can see the handwriting on the wall. This is what I’m going to try and do to help myself and the fishery,” he said. “I think that there’s this perception out there ... that these setnetters weren’t willing to bend. But, I think in 2013 the light really came on with this (grim) preseason forecast (of kings). I think its out there that setnetters are willing to change their gear to stay in the game and harvest sockeye.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org