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Sometimes fisheries must change with the times

Posted: August 20, 2012 - 8:39am

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.

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Beach Boss
Beach Boss 08/20/12 - 07:15 pm
So confused??

If the commercial fisherman are the problem then can you explain what has happened to the first run of kings? In river user group have over harvested them thats what!! Can't blame commercial fisherman can you??

Are you really saying the increasing number of guides, and anglers that are camping over king spawning beds day after day have ZERO effect on the return of kings?? Like you said Limited entry is a good thing, time to do it with our commercial guides.

"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." What are you talking about?? Ask the biologist what is one of the most accurate indices of king salmon. THE EASTSIDE SET NETS!! How can we hide our harvest numbers. Within 24hrs you know what the commercial harvest is. Tell me how I can find the daily harvest of the in-river user group. Oh yeah you can't its done post season.

Are you really concerned with conservation or does it come down to the allocation you have a problem with?? From your letter sounds like an allocation issue. In river user groups have 100% first priority to the first run of kings, and 80% first priority of the second run and that is not enough?? Only 20% of the late king run goes by the setnet district.

Wipe away all commercial fisherman Mr. Johnson and in 10 years we will still have a king issue?? Fixing the user group that only has access to 20% of the run WILL NOT FIX the problem.

smithtb 08/20/12 - 10:50 pm
Finger pointing

Mr. Johnson,

Its odd that the two species of fish that you blame gillnetters for destroying since the 1980's are the two species that the gillnetters have been restricted from fishing since the 1980's, when your industry began fighting for exclusive rights to them.

Do you fish kings in the saltwater with a rod and reel? I do. And its not on the beach. It's offshore right near the bottom in 60-100 feet of water.(Deeper if you have heavy enough rigger weights). The assumption that all the kings are right on the beach is nonsense. Obviously some of them are, but there is no way setnets could catch them all. Moving our nets offshore would cause us to catch so many less sockeye that our King to Sockeye ratio would go up!

Most setnetters have no problem fishing less when lack of Kings are an issue, so long as optimum escapement of sockeye is held as equally important, and we know that the escapement figures are reliable. Timing is more important than anything. Had our local biologists made the call this year on when to fish the setnets rather than some politican in Juneau, ESSN likely would have caught exponentially more Sockeye and less kings in the same amount of fishing time.

Rather than widesweeping changes, many of us belive that a few simple measures would make a large difference.

1. Be honest about the numbers. Setnets catch over 50% less Kenai kings than you claim if you subtract Jacks and fish bound for other rivers. You may not personally believe the daily commercial harvest reports, but they are far more accurate and informative than any in-river harvest or C&R mortality 'estimates' that we get. Don't forget that ADFG employees are onsite to pull measurements, age/sex statistics, scale samples, and genetics from the commercial caught fish.

2. Get more and better numbers. Couldn't river guide harvest data be a very accurate indicator of in river run strength? How hard would it be for your industry to report within 24 hours all harvest and C&R statistics like the commercial industry has done for darn near ever? Heck, you could use the same e-landing system they do!

3. Protect the river. There are no boats, no boots, no hooks, and no riverfront fishing communities in most of the Sockeye spawning grounds. Is it coincidence that they are healthy while the other species that spawn in the lower river are struggling?

4. Establish limits. Our river is quite small, but yet we allow unrestricted growth of all user groups within it. Even the commercial guiding industry that operates there is allowed to expand with no limits. This is unacceptable.

There are issues in the ocean, but bottom line, when you look around the world, nearly all wildlife abundance issues are habitat related. Stop pointing fingers, your user group has some responsibility here.

keeneye 08/21/12 - 11:21 am
mis "guided"

I got to agree with beach boss and smithtb, Mr Johnson. Your 30 year observations are extremely myopic. I have participated in commercial and sports fisheries here for over 40 years, and lets just say I disagree with your assessment.

You said it yourself: "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 over harvest of salmon." "Conservation measures were instituted and the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries rebounded in 1976."

So, in three years things rebounded. It worked. Tell me, what has changed on the Commercial side of things since then? If anything, they (commercial fishermen) have been restricted even more(with less fishing periods) whilst the sport side of things has done nothing but increase the pressure on our rivers. My observation, sir, is that a river with so many boats in it that you can literally walk across it without getting your feet wet is insanity. You might as well string a net across the river.
Do you honestly think that our rivers can handle more pressure? There are too many boats period on the lower (Kenai) river!! Red tags, green tags for non guided boats. That is, odd -even days.
There is room for everyone-just not at the same time. It gets old listening to the same old rhetoric: "we have to restrict the commercial fishery" when, in fact, it is the sports fishery that has been allowed to grow unchecked.

I agree with you that the fishery must change with the times. It's high time that the guides are limited as well.
That's my observation.

5akman 08/21/12 - 05:15 pm
Guides are to blame!

If I were a cattle rancher, would I harvest my best bull and cow? No, I'd keep them for my breeding stock. The in river user rule that allows keeping a king over 55" inches is just killing off the genetics of that "hog" king. Even that huge mule deer buck hanging on your wall probably got to reproduce multiple times before being shot. The big kings don't ever get that chance.

There will always be the debate that a big king was one that stayed out a year longer and therefore its bigger. Or it fed better than the rest. I'd offer this to snuff out that argument. I'm 6'1" and my wife 5'9". Genetically, we assume we'd have big kids regardless of whether or not they ate 3 meals a day of junk food or a well balanced diet. Our 3 teenage boys were all in the top 10% of their percentile for age/height/weight every year because of their genetics not for any other reason! Stop killing big kings and the big kings will return! Stop fishing over the top of the spawning beds and the kings will return!

If you look at in river pressure, you can't ignore the increased usage. Comm fish has been limited entry since 1974, in that their are the same number of participants then as now. Our king catch was nearly the same in recent years vs data from the late 70's. In the last 30 yrs, the guide numbers have increased to between 300-400 (Ricky G recently mentioned in an article that over 300 guides were being affected by the king closure) and these are participants fishing right over the spawning beds! Yes, comm guys catch kings but in the same proportion as we always have. What has changed? In river pressure over the spawning beds and killing of large kings.

Everyone needs to help here. Us Comm guys are all or none. We fish or we don't. We don't have any step down measures. Guides have lots of opportunities if one fishery is shut down. They can hit the Kasilof or go further down the peninsula, they can fish reds/silvers/pinks, they can fish the salt etc. All I know is, we've been singled out as the only user group to bear the entire burden of king conservation this year (guides got 19 days to fish so don't go there and the Kenai convieninently went C&R the day after the Kenai Classic).

'Nuff said.

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