Setnetting on the beaches of northern Cook Inlet isn’t a very visible fishery, but participants argue it’s a viable one.
The Northern Cook Inlet setnet fishery operates between a line between Boulder Point in Nikiski and the Kustatan Peninsula on the west side of the inlet and Fire Island. Fishermen can target all five species of Pacific salmon at different times throughout the summer, beginning May 25 with a directed king salmon fishery. As northern district setnetter Trevor Rollman put it in his testimony the Board of Fisheries on Friday, the fishery doesn’t have an official closure, but rather it’s the weather that closes them for the season.
The fishery is relatively small — in 2016, 75 permits were issued and the total fishery harvested 47,150 sockeye, 30,476 coho, 7,968 pinks and 3,168 chums. The directed king salmon fishery, which is only open for select periods each year, caught 2,202 king salmon in 2016 among the approximately 40 permits issued.
Most of the fishermen land in Anchorage. Many of them direct-market their catch, as Rollman said he intended to do with his site in the future. Direct-marketers, sometimes called catcher-sellers, harvest and prepare their catch themselves, selling it directly to customers. Direct-marketers can often get more per pound than commercial fishermen who sell to processors.
But participation in the fishery has declined in the past few decades. In the directed king salmon fishery, 140 permits were issued in 1991. By 2016, 100 less were issued, according to the 2016 commercial fisheries management report. King and sockeye harvests have both declined as well. In 1993, the northern district set gillnet fishery harvested 3,307 kings and 146,633 sockeye, according to the 2016 management report.
The fishery has also been reduced over time. Because of conservation concerns for kings, the Board of Fisheries scaled back the amount of gear allowed in the water from three nets to one. Setnetter Stephen Braund, who testified to the Board of Fisheries Friday, said he supported that measure because it was better to reduce gear than to not have any gear in the water.
Now, though, the fishery is facing the question of additional restriction. Several proposals before the Board of Fisheries for its Upper Cook Inlet cycle ask for additional restrictions on the fishery, including setting a regulation system in place based on restrictions to the Susitna sport fishery, reminiscent of the paired restriction system between the Kenai River king salmon run and the Cook Inlet east side setnet fishery. Others include closing an area near the mouth of the Little Susitna River to commercial fishing, either fully or based on sportfishery restrictions.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, an official borough board, submitted two of the proposals to close the area near the mouth of the Little Susitna River. The borough supports the proposals because the current returns don’t fulfill sport and personal-use demands in the valley, wrote Borough Mayor Vern Halter in a letter to the Board of Fisheries.
“Fishery management and harvest allocation in Upper Cook Inlet is out of step with the economic and cultural realities of today,” Halter wrote.
In testimony to the Board of Fisheries on Saturday, Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee Chairman Andy Couch said the board supported further restrictions to the northern district fishery as a measure to help rebuild the native populations there, particularly of king salmon.
Throughout the public comment process Friday and Saturday, Northern District setnetters spoke up in favor of the fishery, saying it was traditional to their families and that further restrictions might kill the fishery off.
Rollman said the fishery already has only a few open periods to fish, and any more restrictions will be crippling.
“We’re one of the most limited fisheries in the inlet,” he said. “Any more restrictions will force more of us out of business.”
Others said they’ve already given up gear and time over the years.
“We’re losing pieces of beach, we’re losing gear,” said Page Herring, who said she setnets near Point MacKenzie. “…we’re just getting chipped away at, chipped away at until finally there’s not going to be anything left.”
Mike Wood, who said he setnets at the mouth of the Ivan River, near the mouth of the Susitna, said his site caught more sockeye in the last few seasons than in previous years, possibly due to restrictions to the Central District drift gillnet fleet.
“… They are less marked up,” he said. “We’re getting some really nice fish in there during that period of time. They’re also mixed in there with everything else.”
Several other northern district setnetters said they also saw a small bump in their sockeye harvest in the last few seasons.
The Board of Fisheries is scheduled to take up the committee discussions on the northern district setnet proposals toward the end of the committee process, in Group 7, according to a board agenda.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.