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Senate committee hears second day of testimony from Cook Inlet fishers

Posted: March 26, 2014 - 10:22pm

Testimony continued Wednesday before the Senate Resources committee as representatives from several Upper Cook Inlet and statewide fishing-related organizations testified on perspectives and issues involved in areas fisheries.

Committee chair, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said the meetings were for informational purposes only and allowed legislators to get a better idea of the utilization of Alaska’s salmon resources.

Among the groups to testify Wednesday were commercial, sport, aquaculture and habitat conservation organizations — each with a unique perspective on what needed to be fixed with salmon management in the Cook Inlet.

Jeff Fox, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist spoke on behalf of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association — though Fox said he was neither a commercial fisherman nor a member of the association, which represents commercial drift gillnet fishers.

The UCIDA presentation focused initially on the value of the Cook Inlet commercial fisheries with statistics from a 2013 Northern Economics study.

Fox said that — when managed correctly — Cook Inlet was the fourth largest salmon fishery in the state.

The Cook Inlet commercial fisheries are supposed to be scientifically managed for sustained yield and in a reliable and predictable regulatory environment — two things Fox said were not currently being practiced in the area.

Fox, Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, and Julianne Curry, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, each pointed out the economic benefits the fisheries they represented brought to the state.

“All user groups of the salmon resource are important to Alaska’s economy,” Fox said. “We shouldn’t put all of our eggs in the tourism basket.”

Committee vice-chair, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, was one of the committee members who asked presenters for their perspectives on how the issues could be solved.

“I’ve always wanted to ask the question, what should we do?” Dyson said after Fox’s presentation.

Fox said he didn’t think there were as many problems in the fishery as were indicated by the amount of bickering between user groups.

“I think everybody assumes that there’s a problem in Cook Inlet because people are still fighting about the fish,” Fox said during Dyson’s questions. “That’s not necessarily a problem because that’s just the way salmon fisheries go.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said fishers in the Mat-Su Valley felt they were not getting the returns of salmon that they used to.

“It’s not an unrealistic expectation for Alaskans to want to catch fish close to home,” Micciche said.

Micciche asked Fox for his top three recommendations to fixing problems in the Mat-Su Valley.

Fox said as fishing pressure rises, the state should consider reducing the bag and possession limits for inriver users and work to make sure ADFG managers could quickly restrict inriver fisheries as the potential for harvest of salmon increases with each new user.

“If you increase harvest ability, you have to be able to close it down rapidly,” he said.

Gary Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, and Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, spoke about ways to address habitat issues and ailing runs of salmon in some of the area watersheds.

Fandrei said the aquaculture association had been actively searching for a way to control invasive northern pike — a fish that is widely thought to have decimated salmon populations in the northern Cook Inlet.

However, pike wasn’t the only problem in some of the fisheries that have seen declining salmon runs, Fandrei said.

He pointed to Shell Lake, a remote lake in the Yentna-Susitna drainage where the aquaculture association noticed a drop in the sockeye salmon population. Originally, the precipitous decline was thought to have been caused by northern pike predation and the aquaculture association started a project to eradicate pike in 2012 — they have harvested nearly 1,000 since then, according to Fandrei’s presentation.

To preserve the genetic lineage of the sockeye population, aquaculture association staff collected about 91,000 eggs and reared them at the Trail Lakes Hatchery and plans to release 70,000 smolt into the lake in 2014.

However, tissue analysis during the process of rehabilitating the lake showed adult salmon to have been infected with two different parasitic infections, one that affects the gills and one that affects the kidneys — both can kill the fish.

“I think that’s a real issue to be looking at in any of these programs, you’ve got multiple things going on and you have to be aware of all of the things that are happening,” Fandrei said.

Ruffner also spoke about pike predation and encouraged lawmakers to focus resources on keeping the fish from spreading onto the Kenai Peninsula.

“The state needs to have a much quicker … rapid response mechanism in place to deal with invasive species,” Ruffner said.

When pike were first found in the Mat-Su Valley, the problem was ignored, he said.

“We’re not going to be able to eradicate pike in the Mat-Su.”

Ruffner said the someone needed to be held accountable for fisheries issues of concern for the state and that the issues failing to get attention are those that required the cooperation of the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Conservation and ADFG.

He cited the federal government’s involvement in listing the Kenai River as an impaired water body when hydrocarbons were measured in excedence of federal standards.

Ruffner said he hoped the federal government would not have to get involved again because of state-level inaction.

One more day of testimony begins Friday at 3:30 p.m. when Charlie Swanton, director of the sport fish division of ADFG, and Tracy Lingnau, central region supervisor for ADFG, are scheduled to give an overview of salmon stocks and management plans in the Upper Cook Inlet.

The hearings can be watched at the Kenai Legislative Information Office or online at http://www.360north.org or http://akl.tv.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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