Board of Fisheries to hear Cook Inlet setnet emergency petition

With about a day’s notice, the Alaska Board of Fisheries has scheduled a meeting to discuss an emergency petition filed by an organization representing commercial setnetters in Upper Cook Inlet.

A teleconference has been scheduled for 10 a.m. today for the group to consider the merits of an emergency petition filed by setnetter Paul Shadura, a spokesperson for the South K Beach Independent Fishermen’s Association, or SOKI.

The board will decide whether they believe an emergency — one that typically requires board action to fix — exists. Four of the seven board members must vote in favor of an emergency finding before they can consider the petition.

Under state law, the board can make an emergency finding if it determines an unforeseen or unexpected event has occurred that either threatens a resource, or one in which a regulatory inaction would prevent harvesting a biologically acceptable surplus of a resource.

The SOKI petition was one of three emergency petitions submitted March 20 by Upper Cook Inlet users during the Board of Fisheries’ statewide king, tanner crab and supplemental issues meeting in Anchorage.

The petition asks the board to consider managing the Kenai and Kasilof sections of the Cook Inlet’s East Side Setnet Fishery independently of each other during times when 36 hours of fishing time is available to the setnet fishery.

The petition comes after the board put additional restrictions on the setnet fishery when the late-run of Kenai River king salmon is projected to be fewer than 22,500 fish. The 2014 forecast for the Kenai River is for 19,700 king salmon.

According to the new restrictions, when the Kenai River sport fishery is restricted to no-bait fishing — a measure intended to reduce fish mortality — the commercial setnet fishery can only fish up to 36 hours per week — a measure designed to reduce commercial king salmon catch.

The restrictions were part of what the board called “paired step-down measures” between the commercial and sport fisheries and were passed during its 2014 meeting on Upper Cook Inlet issues in February.

The measures were inserted into the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan but will not be implemented until the 2014 fishing season begins — leaving local fishers to wonder how the provisions of the new plan will change the way the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, will manage the next season.

Several requests for clarification were submitted during the Upper Cook Inlet meeting.

The SOKI petition requests that the Board of Fisheries amend the language in those restrictions to allow more equitable opportunity for commercial fishers to harvest sockeye between the Kenai and Kasilof sections of the setnet fishery.

ADFG Commercial Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said that under the new provisions, if commercial setnetters are allowed to fish in the Kasilof section but not the Kenai section, the hours will count toward the 36-hour limit for both fisheries.

Shadura said his organization was primarily concerned with what would happen during late July if the two sections of the fisheries were linked together in numbers of hours that could be fished, despite fishing on two different stocks of sockeye that have two different peaks in run timing.

Shadura, whose setnet sites are located in the Kasilof section of the East Side Setnet fishery, said the historical midpoint — or peak surge of fish — in the sockeye run on the Kasilof river is July 14-16 while the historical midpoint for the sockeye run on the Kenai River is July 19-22. If managers were required to allocate 36 hours of fishing time between the Kenai and Kasilof sections when the peaks of the two different runs happened during the same week — it could come down to prioritizing one river’s sockeye run over another.

“Maybe managers will be saying ... let’s hold off on opening up the Kasilof area, even though the run is substantial for this area, so we can make sure we have enough hours on the Kenai,” Shadura said. “If we’re all bound together, it would be difficult for managers to make that decision.”

Shadura said the petition was designed to give managers flexibility in dealing with the two separate runs rather than having to “hedge their bets” on which day they could fish the entirety of the setnet beach to capture both Kenai and Kasilof sockeye salmon.

According to the emergency petition, SOKI members do not believe the Board of Fisheries members included a clear justification for the linkage and suggested language that modified the new plan to say that the Kenai district and Kasilof district would each respectively be allowed no more than 36 hours per week.

Part of the justification for the change, according to the petition, was that the 70 miles of East Side Setnet Beaches could not be treated the same as they did not have the same concentrations of salmon available at any particular time.

“The attempt here is to relieve some of the inequities and to assist the managers in targeting openings that will give the most opportunity to harvest abundant sockeye will still allowing some management flexibility,” according to the petition.

According to ADFG staff comments on the petition, the department does not believe the petition meets the criteria of an emergency petition.

In addition, according to the ADFG staff comments, the language change proposed by SOKI would likely “affect management and harvest of salmon in each section.”

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a Soldotna-based sportfishing advocacy group, submitted comments to the board in opposition to the SOKI petition that also questioned whether the proposal met the board criteria for a finding of an emergency.

“Denial should be based first on the absence of an emergency and second on the merits since the petition fails to acknowledge that all changes made to the Late-Run King Plan were necessitated by historic low runs of Kenai River late-run king salmon,” according to the comments.

Reach Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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