Ninilchik tribe moves forward in Kenai River gillnet approval

Ninilchik Traditional Council Resource and Environmental Director Darrel Williams checks the tribe’s subsistence gillnet for fish on the Kenai River on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 near Soldotna, Alaska. The tribe gained approval for the controversial net on July 27 and was able to fish it until Aug. 15. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ivan Z. Encelewski's name and to clarify the Ninilchik Traditional Council's subsistence permit and harvest distribution process.

 

The Ninilchik Traditional Council is on its way to a settled plan for its subsistence gillnet in the Kenai River.

The Alaska Native tribe, which is centered in the community of Ninilchik about 35 miles south of the Kenai River, obtained approval for its subsistence gillnet program in August 2016 and fished for about two weeks on a section of the Kenai River bank a few miles upstream of the Moose River Meadows area.

Ninilchik’s designated fishers, who are tribal staff members, collect subsistence permits, drive up to the Kenai and launch a boat upriver to set up the shore-anchored net. They take the fish and then distribute them to people who submitted subsistence permits. They can only harvest as many fish as the permits they have collected allot. Last year, they harvested 723 sockeye, 12 coho salmon, six pink salmon, one king salmon, two Dolly Varden trout and one whitefish, according to the tribe’s harvest records.

However, the approval they received last year was a special action request, which is only good for 60 days after it is authorized by the Federal Subsistence Board, the U.S. Department of the Interior body overseeing subsistence use on federal lands. Though the fishery is authorized in formal regulations, it requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve an operational plan for the fishery each summer, which did not usually happen. After numerous discussions and a lawsuit, the tribe got to fish last summer and since then, tribal leaders and Fish and Wildlife have been working on crafting a settlement to change regulations so the fishery can be more settled.

“The bottom line is that Ninilchik Traditional Council and the Fish and Wildlife Service have met several times, (had) discussions of the settlement and the lawsuit, we’ve come to an agreement with the implementation of the fishery,” said Ivan Z. Encelewski, the executive director of the Ninilchik Traditional Council. “The regulations will not only provide a meaningful subsistence opportunity for Ninilchik but also (provide for conservation).”

The settlement lays out guidelines for the fishery and a timeline for implementation and regulation change. However, because of the time it takes to change federal regulations, the tribe and Fish and Wildlife jointly filed another Special Action Request for the board to consider and approve for the 2017 subsistence gillnet season to take place, Encelewski said.

The settlement the two entities worked out helps balance subsistence opportunities with conservation issues, Encelewski said. For instance, it sets encounter limits — if the net catches 100 rainbow trout, regardless of whether they are harvested or released, the fishery is shut down, he said. There are similar limits for Dolly Varden trout and king salmon. The settlement also eliminates the tribe’s fishing in June, adding additional protection for early-run Kenai king salmon.

“To provide the conservation measures for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by providing those caps, it really reduces any potential conservation concern,” Encelewski said.

Fishermen downstream have been concerned about the net because of potential interference with spawning grounds for king salmon and interception of resident species. Fishermen upstream have been concerned that the tribe’s gillnet will collect too many fish and not enough will make it upstream to supply Cooper Landing and Hope, two communities that participate in a subsistence fishery on the Russian River below the falls.

When the Federal Subsistence Board initially approved a plan for the Kenai River subsistence gillnet in early 2015, members of the Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community, the Alaska State Legislature and Fish and Wildlife and other private citizens submitted more than 700 requests for reconsideration of the decision. The Office of Subsistence Management spent about a year and a half reviewing the letters and identifying which claims in the requests had merit. The preliminary analysis, presented to the Federal Subsistence Board at its Jan. 10 —13, 2017 meeting, found that five of the claims could have merit, so the office supported the request to reconsider.

However, that may not carry through. The staff is still analyzing the information, said Gene Peltola, the assistant regional manager for the Office of Subsistence Management in Alaska. In the meantime, the office staff is still analyzing the claims in the requests, he said.

“We are going through and addressing those particular areas of concern to be visited in further detail,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife had concerns, too, about the resident species and about safety for boaters in the area. Some of the concerns could be taken care of within the action the board takes on the settlement and regulation in the future, Peltola said. This year, the staff will be working on changing the regulations for the net to take care of some of the concerns, but the regulation process takes time and depends on direction from President Donald Trump’s new administration. Trump signed an executive order at the end of January requiring federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one they enact, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the National Resource Defense Council.

Peltola said he couldn’t give an exact timeline in specific terms. The timeline included in the settlement indicates that the new regulations should be set by the end of the year.

Encelewski said he doesn’t think the request for reconsideration will go through. At the meeting in January, no one testified against the Ninilchik tribe’s net plan and the board unanimously approved the agreement, he said, especially after remaining issues are worked out in the settlement.

The real point for the Ninilchik tribal members is access to meaningful subsistence harvest, he said. The crux of the tribe’s argument all along has been that members historically fished the Kenai River with gillnet gear, and because the Kenai is a more productive river, it allows them to harvest more fish in a shorter period. Last year, between the tribe’s educational nets in Cook Inlet and its experimental Kasilof River subsistence gillnet, the fishers harvested 319 fish, he said. On the Kenai, in two and a half weeks, they harvested 723 sockeye alone, not counting the other species.

“We did more in two and a half weeks in the Kenai than we did in three and a half months in the (the other fisheries),” he said.

The Department of the Interior plans to hold a hearing about the Special Action Request in Soldotna on Feb. 24 from 5:30–7:30. People can attend either in person at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Ski Hill Road or by teleconference and give public testimony on the issue. More information about the hearing can be found on the Department of the Interior’s website.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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