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Cook Inlet commercial fisheries winding down

Posted: August 21, 2014 - 7:39pm
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Karl Kircher and Steven Bishop pitch setnet caught fish from a skiff near the mouth of the Kasilof River at 1 a.m. July 17 during an overnight commercial fishing period in Kasilof, Alaska.
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Karl Kircher and Steven Bishop pitch setnet caught fish from a skiff near the mouth of the Kasilof River at 1 a.m. July 17 during an overnight commercial fishing period in Kasilof, Alaska.

The last of the Upper Cook Inlet East Side setnetters pulled their nets out of the water for good Aug. 6 after harvesting almost a million fish this season.

Setnetters harvested about 930,300 salmon in the Kasilof, Kenai, and East Forelands sections and the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area this summer, about one-third of the 3.1 million salmon caught commercially in Upper Cook Inlet.

The setnet harvest included about 704,272 sockeye, 216,233 pinks, 6,461 coho, 2,055 kings, and 792 chums.

Ultimately, setnetters in the Kenai and East Forelands sections had six openings this summer; Kasilof section setnetters had 14, while the Kasilof Special Harvest Area was open for 17 periods. Kasilof section fishermen did not participate in the final Aug. 6 fishing period because they had already reached the one percent rule, which stops the setnet fishery once the sockeye abundance trails off.

The total Upper Cook Inlet harvest is on par with 2013, when commercial fishermen also harvested about 3.1 million salmon, although that was a non-pink year, and the total is less than the 1966-2012 average of 4.1 million salmon.

Those estimates, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, are based on daily call-in numbers, and could change based on fish ticket data at the end of the summer.

ADFG Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said that looking at the department’s most basic charge — meeting escapement goals — the season was a success, although he noted that restrictions and reduced harvests were difficult for all fishermen.

ADFG started the season with restrictions in sport, commercial and personal-use fisheries to help protect early run king salmon, including reduced fishing time in the Northern District direct king fishery, and reduced fishing time for the Kasilof personal-use fishery. Those appeared to pay off.

“Many of the early run king salmon goals were made,” Shields said.

On the Kasilof, the management plan allows for an early opening if the sockeye run starts off strong enough; this year that occurred, but managers waited a few days to open up because of early run king concerns, Shields said.

This summer, managers were tasked with conserving kings while providing opportunity to harvest sockeye — within the constraints of changed management plans passed by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in February.

The changes created paired restrictions between the Kenai River king sport fishery and the commercial setnet fishery, and meant that essentially, the Division of Sport Fish was driving commercial management as it tried to meet the Kenai late-run king escapement goal.

Given those constraints, setnetters said the season went as well as it could have.

“Managers did the best they could with the tools they have,” said Ken Coleman, an East Side setnetter.

Megan Smith and Sarah Frostad-Hudkins, two other East Side setnetters, agreed.

“They managed fairly with what they were given,” Frostad-Hudkins said.

King conservation took a front seat throughout the commercial fishing season.

“All eyes were on the daily estimates of king salmon passage,” Shields said, noting that sport and commercial biologists were talking daily.

Setnetters are allowed to harvest all five species of salmon, but they primarily target sockeye. King and silver salmon are generally managed with a priority for sport harvest.

Because the Kenai River late run king salmon sport fishery was restricted to no-bait when the season opened July 1, the commercial setnet fishery had no regular periods and was limited to 36 hours per week.

“That was brand new and that was a challenge for the department,” Shields said.

That was also difficult for the fleet.

Smith noted that for setnetters with full-time jobs outside of fishing, not having any regularly-scheduled fishing periods made it more difficult to plan for every opening.

Ultimately, however, she said the department seemed to do its best to follow the plans and provide fishing opportunity — and the sector was trying to follow suit.

“We’re just trying to do the best that we can with the new regulations and the new management plans,” she said.

ADFG also tries to manage for a certain range of sockeye in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

To meet those goals, Shields said managers wanted to open the setnet fishery at the times of highest abundance, to maximize the sockeye harvest.

Although the final sockeye run was healthy, it was not as large as in the recent past, so the high abundance near the beach didn’t materialize, he said.

The Kenai sockeye run will likely be about 700,000 or 800,000 less than projected, he said.

The discrepancy in the number of Kenai-bound fish could be due to variability in runs, and possibly less survival in some brood years than expected.

Coleman said the lower Kenai abundance made for a difficult fishing year.

The Kasilof sockeye run estimate will likely come in around 1.2 million, compared to a 1.1 million forecast, he said.

Shields said that the department wound up using the Kasilof Special Harvest Area extensively to catch sockeye and keep those fish from exceeding the upper end of their escapement goals. Despite that, the Kasilof biological escapement goal was exceeded, and while the Kenai escapement estimate isn’t complete, it will likely come in at or above the in-river goal.

Both the early and late run king salmon goals were met, and Shields said the final run size estimate for the late run kings will likely be similar to the projection of about 19,000 fish.

Farther north in Cook Inlet, other sockeye goals will likely be met, although counting is still underway at certain lakes, and aerial surveys have not yet been flown. Shields said it wasn’t as robust a year for Susitna sockeye, and every goal will not necessarily be met there.

Pink salmon runs have also been strong in Cook Inlet, and the Kenai, which made things more difficult for the team operating the sockeye sonar, Shields said.

There, ADFG stopped posting daily sockeye counts Aug. 5 because it has been difficult to figure out the correct apportionment between sockeyes and pinks.

But while fishing ended for setnetters Aug. 6 because they had received the maximum allowable time under the management plan, they would have liked more opportunity to catch them, Smith said.

The 36-hour time limit in August is based on the projected king run, and intended to preserve king salmon. That was another change instituted this year by the board.

Despite the challenges of the season, managers and fishermen both noted certain bright spots.

Strong prices helped make up for low harvests. Coleman said that early prices started around $2.40 per pound of sockeye, although that dropped about 20 percent by the time nets went in the water in the East Forelands section.

“Every time our nets get in the water we’re just thankful to be fishing,” Smith said.

Statewide, the commercial salmon catch reached 136.5 million fish through Aug. 19, with several fisheries still open.

The mid-August catch has been almost entirely pinks: about 10 million were caught between Aug. 13 and Aug. 19, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s bluesheet estimates.

Southeast Alaska seiners took the largest share of those — almost 7 million were caught there in mid-August, with another opening scheduled for Aug. 20 and 21.

Southeast Alaska trollers ended their king season after an Aug. 14-18 opening, with a total catch of 209,000 kings for the season. Trollers continue to target cohos, however.

About 400,000 pinks were also caught in Prince William Sound during the Aug. 13-20 time period, and about 500,000 were caught near Kodiak. Several Kodiak-area sections opened Aug. 19 and 20 for extended openings, although king salmon still cannot be retained in certain areas by purse seiners.

Chignik area fisheries also continue to open for regular fishing periods, and harvest estimates are now available for that region for the first time this summer — an estimated 1.1 million fish have been caught there, including 8,000 kings, 55,000 chums, 122,000 cohos, 340,000 pinks and 596,000 sockeye.

Fishermen in the far north continue to target coho and chums; through Aug. 20, about 1.29 million chums were landed in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, and about 229,000 cohos were caught.

The Yukon River fall chum fishery was set for an opening Aug. 22-24, and Aug. 25-27.

On the Kuskokwim River, about 153,000 cohos were caught through Aug. 19, and additional openings were planned for Aug. 21.

The Kotzebue-area chum catch was 573,000 salmon through Aug. 19, and the run has been particularly strong, with the harvest expected to exceed 600,000 for the first time since 1981. However, chums in the region aren’t doing as well once they get into the river, and healthy-looking fish are washing up dead along the Kobuk.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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