Our recent highly unstable Kenai and Kasilof rivers king and red salmon fishing season produced many upset anglers, angry setnet fishermen, and plenty of frustrated local business owners. Do we have to accept a highly unstable salmon industry? Can we learn anything from history or biological science to keep our local salmon industry healthy? I believe we can pursue a path of common sense and reason, that would allow all salmon user groups to benefit from the implementation of sound fisheries management.
When dealing with native salmon stocks you must have adequate escapement for all species. The Cook Inlet Management Plan has not allowed adequate escapement for all native salmon stocks with past management practices. How do I know this? I have participated in the Kenai and Kasilof river salmon fisheries for over 30 years; I have spent thousands of hours observing and fishing in the freshwater and saltwater salmon fisheries; consulted with fishery biologists on management decisions; attended and testified in many board of fisheries meetings. I have witnessed the spectacular runs of king and silver salmon that once filled the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in the 1980s. I have observed the drastic reductions of king and silver salmon runs that occurred in the 1990s to this present day in these great rivers. Adequate escapement for Kenai and Kasilof king and silver salmon cannot be achieved with the past management tools and mandates in the management plan.
Limited Entry was instituted in 1973 for a reason: a set number of permits and nets were suppose to be fished twice a week to prevent overharvest of salmon. The history of Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries teaches a lesson on how to “crash” a salmon fisheries with overharvesting by a commercial fishery (this occurred in the 1950s to the early 1960s). Conservation measures were instituted and the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries rebounded in 1976.
ADF&G started the management practice of using “emergency commercial fishing periods” usually starting in mid July and going well into August. Continuous gill net fishing with millions of feet of nylon mesh allowed over harvest of less numerous species like king and silver salmon, due to the fact there was not adequate monitoring of their escapement numbers. This season fishery biologists decided to use a highly sophisticated Didson sonar developed by the military. It would appear we may be able to finally know accurate escapement numbers for king and silver salmon. This seasons’ low escapement numbers for king salmon produced many financial problems for sport and commercial fishing businesses.
What must be done to once again have a healthy king and silver salmon fishery on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers? We must change harvest measures and methods in our commercial fisheries. We have put many restrictions upon the freshwater and saltwater salmon sport fisheries with very minimal results. We need a Full Disclosure Fishery, and not the past secretive fishery that takes place in the commercial gillnet fishery, which attempts to hide harvest numbers of king and silver salmon. You must control the efficiency of commercial fishing gear: you have a commercial halibut fishery that can take a yearly halibut quota in a little more than a week of fishing; a herring fishery that can harvest their yearly harvest quota in 40 minutes; a Central District drift boat fleet that is capable of harvesting 100,000 silvers in one day off of Kalgin Island in July.
We cannot continue to allow commercial pollock trawlers to rape our halibut and king salmon; we need to move gillnets offshore to allow adequate escapement of king salmon; we may need to reduce Limited Entry permits with a buyout program; the use of emergency fishing periods must be highly monitored to prevent over harvest of any salmon species. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Jim Johnson has been a professional sport fishing guide for over 30 years, and is a past president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association.