ANCHORAGE — Despite support from setnetters and at least three Cook Inlet seafood processors, a proposal to measure the length of commercially harvested king salmon failed Wednesday during the triennial Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting on the Upper Cook Inlet.
After nearly an hour of deliberations — including two amendments to the original proposal that would have required different sizes to be recorded — just two board members voted in support of the proposal which proponents say would have provided the public with a better idea of types of king salmon caught by area commercial fishers.
“It’s pretty interesting that an industry comes to government to ask for regulation to provide data that, it’s hard for me to believe, wouldn’t be useful in season,” said Paul Dale, owner of Snug Harbor Seafoods and president of the Alaska Salmon Alliance.
The alliance, which also has members of Pacific Star Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods on its board, submitted a written record of support to the board, despite the potential of fines if the regulation in the proposal were not carried out accurately.
“We recognize the risk and we’re happy to take it on,” Dale said. “We wanted to help develop a number that is more or less comparable to what inriver users are looking for in terms of chinook.”
Board members who opposed the proposal cited the added burden on the processing industry as one of the reasons they did not support the proposal.
“It was pretty obvious that they didn’t have our comments in hand,” Dale said.
On the Kenai River, sport caught king salmon are recorded in two different groups, those above 20 inches and those below. In 1999, harvest and recording requirements were changed by the board to apply to king salmon, 20 inches or more in length, in all Cook Inlet waters.
Current regulation allows for the harvest of 10 king salmon a day on the Kenai River as long as the fish is less than 20 inches long.
The liberal inriver bag limit on small king salmon is not reflected in the Upper Cook Inlet gillnet fishery where fish harvest tickets do not differentiate by size and the group that submitted the proposal wrote that the lack of differentiation in the commercial fishery provided an incomplete picture of king salmon harvests.
Public testimony on the proposal was vigorous and board member Tom Kluberton, from Talkeetna, said he believed the discussion centered around the perception of the kings caught in the commercial nets.
Until recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, counted all of the kings caught in the East Side Set Nets as Kenai River kings, however genetic testing has since shown that about 30 percent of the kings caught in the fishery are not headed to the Kenai River.
“(They want to) make the information available to the public that they’re not capturing all of the big kings out of the river,” Kluberton said. “I think it’s a very fair and reasonable point they want to make.”
According to ADFG data, prior to 2002 about 22 percent of the East Side setnet king salmon catch was smaller fish, commonly called jacks, said Pat Shields, commercial area management biologist for ADFG. After 2002, the catch of smaller kings jumped and now makes up about 44 percent of the king salmon caught by the fishery.
During the discussion, board chairman Karl Johnstone, of Anchorage, asked Shields how ADFG defined the term “jack” king.
“The jack salmon, some people would call ... all those that are just one ocean fish. Others might include two ocean fish. Others might say that it’s the number of fish that are under 20 inches, because that goes with the number of fish that you can sport catch,” Shields said. “A jack salmon is defined quite differently by different people.”
Shields said he typically classified jacks based on the fish’s age.
Johnstone said he thought “reasonable minds could differ” on the definition of a jack king.
He said he understood why the upper subdistrict “claimed to have caught mostly jacks,” as Shields believed a 3-year-old or 4-year-old fish should be classified as a jack king.
“I’m sure that reasonable minds can differ on what a jack is. I’m sure there’s a lot of sport fishermen that would be very happy to catch that size of fish,” he said.
Kluberton said he understood that the setnetters could feel they were being penalized for catching king salmon that were not being counted inriver.
“For a lot of years when they were enumerating kings inriver, the sonar observers tended to regard any fish over 750 mm as a king. So for a period of time, fish under 750 mm were regarded as sockeye,” he said. “So there became a perception that smaller kings weren’t being counted and I think that’s, in par, the message that some of the commercial fleet wants to get out there is ‘Oh, we’re being penalized for fish that weren’t even counted inriver.’”
However, the inriver sonar program has changed, Kluberton said.
A net apportionment program, which is applied to the number of king salmon counted by the ADFG sonar, is designed to sort the king salmon counted in the Kenai River into age classes.
Kluberton asked ADFG staff if the net apportionment was working properly.
“We’re getting better at it, but in some cases — like what you referred to in the past — those comparisons were probably not as direct as they could be and as they will be in the future,” Swanton said.
Fritz Johnson, board member from Dillingham, twice moved to amend the original proposal — which called for processors to separate king salmon as greater than or less than 20 inches in length and then mark the information on fish tickets.
The first amendment was to change the length cutoff to 33 inches.
Johnstone said he did not support that length and thought it would be misleading to the public.
“It tells the public that this board thinks that anything less than 33 inches is a jack and it would support any claims by the upper subdistrict that they only catch small fish because they just caught a handful of these fish over 33 inches,” Johnstone said. “I would think that the average person who is fishing for a king would not consider a 32 and 3-1/4 inch king a jack.”
When that amendment failed, Johnson proposed another which would have adjusted the cutoff measurement to 28 inches.
Twenty-eight inches is closer to the 750 mm cutoff measured by inriver sonar and, according to the salmon alliance’s written support, more closely aligned with the description of a jack king salmon in other parts of the state and in the Pacific Northwest.
Johnstone said he still did not support the board tacitly supporting a definition of king salmon by voting a 28-inch reporting requirement into regulation.
Both Johnson and Kodiak-based board member Sue Jeffrey said they thought inseason fish ticket information could benefit managers who were trying to keep an eye on the king salmon run using the commercial fishery.
“Fish tickets are, they’re like money,” Jeffrey said. “I mean, that’s currency. It’s data rich and it’s from the grounds. From the processors and I think it’s a valuable tool for us to use. It links length of fish and the number of those fish to the particular gear types and I am in full support of this.”
Kluberton said he supported the concept of educating the public about the age composition of king salmon caught in the commercial fisheries, but did not think the information would be timely or useful inseason.
ADFG opposed the proposal on the grounds that it already has the ability to record the information on fish tickets.
“The department would prefer to have this as an option that could be used in certain areas and not make it a requirement in all areas of Upper Cook Inlet,” according to the ADFG staff comments on the proposal. “The department also already samples king salmon in the UCI commercial fishery; this effort provides the data being requested in this proposal. Therefore, this proposal would create unnecessary burden on commercial users and in the processing industry by requiring collection of data the department already has available.”
Kluberton said he thought it would be difficult to enforce proper measurement of the fish at the processor landings as well.
“An enforcement officer would have to be standing right there and counting those fish, which isn’t going to speed anything up through the processor’s shop at the buying station.”
The final vote tally was just two in support, Johnson and Jeffrey, while the rest of the board opposed.
Both said they did not consider an extra line on a fish ticket to be burdensome to a processor.
John Jensen, who voted in opposition to the proposal said after the meeting he thought every king counted.
“Didn’t I support that?” he said when asked about his vote.
Reed Morisky, board member from Fairbanks, said after the meeting he voted in opposition to the proposal because he did not understand the significance of “above 20 and below 20” as opposed to a different size recording.
Morisky said he was aware of the liberal bag limit on king salmon smaller than 20 inches in the Kenai River during the early run, but did not comment specifically on the perceived disparity between the commercial fishery and sport fishery on small king salmon put forward by the proposal’s authors.
“Why do we just say, if it’s 20 inches or less, it’s ten and move along in there and the nets ... well that’s a good question,” he said.
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.