The announcement of a catch-and-release fishery for Kenai River king salmon, a severe reduction in harvest opportunity for sport anglers — triggered an equally severe restriction on hours in the East Side Setnet Fishery, one of the two commercial fishing groups in the Cook Inlet tasked with harvesting sockeye, or red salmon.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers said the proscriptive measures reducing the time and area available to commercial fishers in the Cook Inlet would make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.
Sockeye salmon are returning to the Kasilof River in record numbers while the Kenai River’s sockeye run is building. Typically, the set and drift gillnetters would be reaching the peak of their fishing time and area during the third week of July — but the setnetters will now be operating within the confines of a 12-hour-per week cap on their fishing time while the drift fleet is regulated by a new management plan that restricts them to three corridors on the east side of the Cook Inlet.
For the setnetters, who fish from the beach, this means that they’ll likely get their nets in the water for one 12-hour period or two 6-hour periods a week. For the drifters, who fish from boats, the corridors reduce their efficiency at catching sockeye to about a quarter of what it would be if they were let loose in their former fishing area.
“It will be difficult if the run returns as forecasted,” said commercial area management biologist Pat Shields.
Whether the commercial fleet can be fished enough to be a useful tool in controlling salmon escapement depends on several factors.
One that managers consider is run timing, typically biologist classify the salmon runs as on-time, early or late; another is the actual number of fish returning and whether or not it tracks with the number of fish predicted to return; finally, the number of Kenai River king salmon returning and whether it improves or continues poorly, both options could impact the hours available for commercial setnet fishing.
On the Kasilof, setnetters play a vital role in catching sockeye bound for the river as the fish tend to be “beach-oriented” later in the season and are usually too close to shore for drifters to catch, said Aaron Dupuis, assistant area management biologist in the commercial fisheries division of Fish and Game during a Wednesday interview.
Managers believe the Kasilof sockeye run is about halfway over and just about 280,000 fish have already made it up the river — meaning the final escapement could be projected at about 560,000 — well above the biological escapement goal range on the river of 160,000-340,000.
“It will be very difficult, I’m not saying impossible, very difficult to keep the final escapement in the Kasilof River below (the top end of its goal),” he said. “With the number of sockeye that we believe are yet to come to the Kasilof River, we would harvest at a rate that we can’t attain with the minimal number of hours that we have in the setnet fishery.”
About 310,000 sockeye have returned to the Kenai River. While managers have multiple goals they can aim for, Shields focused on the inriver goal of 1 million-1.2 million fish.
Run timing models of the sockeye run on the river have predicted that it could go over the inriver goal, Shields said.
“We stand a better chance of meeting that goal,” he said. “That said, with the limited number of hours again in the setnet fishery and the restricted drift fishery, I guess I have to say it would be — if the runs returns as expected — it would be difficult to keep the final passage in the Kenai River within in the inriver goal.”
The east side setnets and drifters fished Thursday. An Emergency Order released Thursday opened drift gillnetting in the expanded Kenai, Kasilof and Anchor Point sections for a 12-hour period Friday — the three areas confine the drift fleet to a narrow band of fishing between the east beaches of the Cook Inlet and Kalgin Island.
The setnetters could fish again on Saturday. Under the new management restrictions they would be allowed 12 hours this week when the Kenai River goes to catch-and-release fishing — then one Sunday when the new stat-week begins, they would be given 12 more hours.
Shields said there had been no decision made on whether to fish the setnetters on Saturday.
He also is not sure how to manage 12 hours of fishing time per week, though he said the two best options seemed to be one 12-hour period or two 6-hour periods. A six hour period carries a risk.
“It would require many fishermen in the fishery to be able to move their gear while the tide is running,” he said. “That would be very difficult to do. They can plan for it somewhat but even planning for it still makes it somewhat difficult for them to do.”
Fishing one 12-hour period could mean that managers choose a day to fish that would be a good one for harvesting sockeye salmon, or cause the entire setnet fleet to stay out of the water when the salmon hit the beach.
“We’ll do our best to catch as many sockeye as we can with the hours that have been provided,” he said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org