After Board of Fish, few changes to conflict between drifters, northern sport fishermen

The Board of Fisheries wrapped up its Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage with few changes for the inlet’s commercial drift gillnet fleet, with small gains possible for the drifters and disagreements between the sport and commercial users left intact.

The drift gillnet fleet in Upper Cook Inlet, composed of about 570 limited-entry permit holders, wanted the Board of Fisheries to dismantle some of the regulations that have been enacted over the years restricting their fishing time and area. They argued that the restrictions make the fleet inefficient and tie the hands of managers to allow commercial fishermen to harvest surplus salmon returning in any given year.

On the other hand, sportfishermen from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley argued for the restrictions to remain in place, saying they allow depleted northern Cook Inlet stocks to rebound. Allowing the Cook Inlet drift fleet to fish in the entire central district and giving them more time would lead to further interception of northern-bound stocks, they argued.

In reality, the board only changed three main things relating to the drift fleet. Its members added the potential for one inlet-wide fishing period in the second half of July if the sockeye salmon run to the Kenai River is projected to come in between 2.3 million and 4.6 million fish. The board also dropped the optimum escapement goal for Kenai River sockeye and moved back the date for the one percent rule for setnetters in August, which also affects the drift gillnet fleet.

Most stakeholders didn’t feel the changes were significant. But while drifters saw them as minor concessions after years of losing time and area, Mat-Su advocates said the changes were small steps in the wrong direction.

“Conservation is not the issue,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Production is the issue.”

Drifters have long held that sending more fish into the northern streams won’t do any good to rebuild stocks because of poor habitat conditions and predation by invasive northern pike. Pike prey on juvenile salmonids and are now documented extensively in lakes across the Mat-Su Valley. Additionally, an extensive infestation of elodea — an invasive water weed that can choke out oxygen in lakes — was documented in Alexander Lake, one of the larger lakes in the valley.

The population growth in the valley has also led to habitat damage, as roads have been placed across streams with insufficient culverts that don’t allow fish to pass through. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has been trying to address the habitat issues by replacing culverts and putting up public education signs, but until there are meaningful efforts to address the pike, putting more fish into the system is just feeding the pike, Huebsch said.

What’s more, the inlet-wide period only goes into effect during years of very large sockeye runs, and it is only a “may” rather than a “shall” in the code, leaving it up to the manager’s discretion. This year, the sockeye run is predicted to be below 2.3 million, meaning the inlet-wide period won’t come into play unless the run comes in above the forecast.

“We didn’t change a thing,” said UCDA President Dave Martin. “We’re still not going to be able to harvest the surplus.”

At the other end of the inlet, the Mat-Su Valley has been seeing declining escapements for a number of years and tight restrictions on sportfishing time and areas within the drainage. Three years ago, when the drifters were restricted out of the center of the inlet to allow for a corridor to allow fish to pass north, Mat-Su sportfishermen said it would help rebuild stocks. The corridor is still in place, but has been weakened with the drifters getting the potential for an extra period, said Mack Minard, a fisheries consultant for the Mat-Su Borough. Residents wanted the corridor to remain in place for at least one full life cycle, or about six years, he said.

“I think it was sort of unfortunate because virtually every action the board took, although individually small, were cumulatively in the wrong direction in terms of conserving king and coho and sockeye salmon in the northern district,” Minard said.

The board rejected a proposal to set optimum escapement goals for the three indicator lakes — Judd, Larson and Chelatna, the only lakes with weirs in the Susitna River drainage — and also moved back the date for the one-percent rule for setnetters in August. In the past, when both the Kenai and Kasilof sections of the setnet fishery were closed by the one-percent rule, the drifters were moved to the west side of the inlet.

Ultimately, fisheries managers should move from a mixed-stock management approach to a terminal fishery approach, which allows for more stock-specific targeting, Minard said. Bristol Bay managers have done it for some time, and though it constricts fishermen to specific areas, it can help preserve weaker stocks.

“I think it will take a generational change,” he said. “It will take a manager who will embrace the idea and a board that has the political will to implement it. And the day we do that is the day we begin to help northern district stocks recover.”

The valley does have habitat issues — the systems are not as productive as the Kenai and Kasilof, which have multiple large, deep lakes, which provide perfect sockeye rearing habitat. The Mat-Su Valley doesn’t have many deep lakes like that, and most sockeye spawn in non-lake habitats, said Larry Engel, a member of the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“The sockeye are spawning in environments that aren’t stable,” he said. “They’re subject to huge changes every year … these kind of sockeye are not as productive, anywhere close to what a large stable Bristol Bay or Kenai can produce. That’s a huge difference, just naturally, than any other type of environment.”

Pike, warm water and urbanization are problems — no one is denying that, Engel said. However, before any people lived in the valley, the systems still produced fewer fish per spawner than the Kenai and Kasilof because of the nature of the water systems, he said. That’s why the Mat-Su advocates argue for additional escapement. The board’s actions to provide additional opportunity for the drift fleet weren’t major, but the Mat-Su Valley advocates would have liked for nothing to change, he said.

“Our position was to leave the Central Distict drift management plan, the corridor, unchanged, to let it work for a few years, and basically that’s what the board did with minor exceptions,” Engel said. “… We wish the plan had stayed intact, but the change that did occur wasn’t a significant change to the rationale and basis for the plan. I guess you could say that we’re pleased that not much changed, but we wish nothing had.”

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

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