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Avoiding another fishery disaster

Voices of the Peninsula

Posted: September 3, 2012 - 9:01am

2012 was a disaster for the east side setnet (ESSN) fleet. How bad was it, what was the cause, what should have been done and what can be done in the future? The ESSN fleet caught 94,530 sockeye all season. In 2011 they caught 1.88 million sockeye. The 2012 catch was 5 percent of 2011’s catch. The drift fleet caught 3.2 million sockeye in 2011 and 2.9 million in 2012. Their 2012 catch was 91 percent of 2011’s catch. The previous ten-year average for the ESSN fleet is 1.57 million sockeye/year. The 2012 harvest was 6 percent of average. Six percent of average is brutal!

How long has it been since an ESSN harvest was lower than 2012? In 1971 they set a low record by taking just 111,505 sockeye. The 2012 harvest broke the bottom out of that record, being just 85 percent of it. Another nadir in Cook Inlet sockeye harvests happened in 1958. That year commercial fishers caught just 470,000—the lowest harvest all the way back to 1908. The ESSN fleet, however, came away with 134,907 sockeye in 1958. The annual Cook Inlet sockeye harvest was over 800,000 every year between 1910 and 1956. Drift fishing didn’t commence in Cook Inlet until 1947. So before that date annual harvests were divided only between setnets and traps. The record low set by east side setnetters in 2012 may not have been seen in almost 100 years.

What caused the disaster? A weak king salmon run coupled with a “decoupling” directive from the Board of Fish. At an early 2011 meeting the board directed Fish and Game managers to decouple east side setnets and drift nets. Since both groups target Kenai and Kasilof river sockeye, managers have always attempted to fish them simultaneously. Decoupling is an effort to reduce east side king salmon harvests. The drift/setnet harvest share has always fluctuated based on weather, salmon entry patterns, and management strategy. In 2008 the ESSN fleet got 55 percent of the Upper Inlet commercial sockeye harvest. In 2011, following the decoupling, they got 36 percent — their lowest share in 17 years. In 2012 the ESSN fleet caught just 3 percent of the Upper Inlet commercial sockeye harvest. Three percent!

Decoupling set the stage. Magnifying the risk for disaster, Fish and Game has, over the past few years, realized that their system for counting Kenai River king salmon was undependable. They implemented a much better system, but unfortunately the new counting method had just a couple seasons of history by which to gauge the meaning of new-style sonar numbers. Kenai River king salmon stocks have been in a decline and the run seemed to be weak so Fish and Game closed east side setnetters on their opening day. Following this action, Kasilof River sockeye did not appear on the beach in any great numbers. That allowed managers the luxury of keeping setnets mostly closed until sport fishing for kings also closed.

What should have been done? First, in a meeting in Kenai with Fish and Game Commissioner Campbell in late July, she revealed that her staff had already been making plans for weak king salmon stock management. “We realized king salmon could be a problem and began having discussions last winter on how to manage for that,” Campbell told Borough Mayor Navarre and a small group of setnetters.

Campbell had ample opportunity to relay those discussions to the setnet community. Instead, on May 15 Fish and Game published a forecast for an improved king salmon run. The Commissioner should have contacted setnetters and warned them that they were planning to take any king salmon shortage as a cue to close setnetting. Fishers could have thus scaled down operations, saving each of them thousands of dollars. And they could have begun discussing how to make radical changes in their harvest methods, and sought help from the state for implementing such changes. New methods could have been tested in 2012.

Furthermore, the East Foreland stat area should have been allowed to fish most of the season. In 2011 East Foreland caught 83 kings while catching about 103,000 sockeye — a ratio of 1,241 sockeye for every king. Salamatof Beach offered similar sockeye-sweet ratios. They fished July 16 and caught 46,005 sockeye and 36 kings, a ratio of 1,278 to one. Had they been allowed to fish a day in late July, I bet they could have tripled their sockeye catch in an even more lopsided ratio. It would seem that Commissioner Campbell didn’t give much thought to cautious use of setnets when “having discussions last winter.” It appears that these top talkers simply ignored setnetters, in their hurry to consider how to manage the drift fleet.

I’ll write again in a few weeks to introduce Selective Harvest Modules, an experimental method for reducing setnet king mortality to near zero.

 

Brent Johnson started setnetting in 1962 and gained insight by working for men who entered the industry much earlier. He has served as chairman or president for: a Fish and Game Advisory Committee, Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, and Kasilof Historical Association. Johnson has been involved in surveying and drafting Shore Fishery Lease diagrams for setnet sites in many parts of Cook Inlet, as well as in Bristol Bay, Kodiak and other areas. He has developed a method for slush-icing at the point of harvest and uses it for over 99 percent of the salmon caught on his 33-net site. He is also the author of Dory Slant, a setnet newsletter. Johnson currently represents District 7 on the Borough Assembly.

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wleman
11
Points
wleman 09/03/12 - 10:29 pm
0
0
decoupling kings from sockeye

Brent, thank you for writing with data. The disaster could also have been avoided if kings had been decoupled from sockeye for both the drift fleet and setnetters. Quite a few years ago setnetters were asked to voluntarily roll-out the live kings they caught. I don't think many did. King runs were still fairly decent. But if we had voluntarily decoupled kings from sockeye, we might have demonstrated with annual fish catches that commercial fishing in Cook Inlet was not to blame for the severe drop in the king runs. It's still not too late to prove it and I am hoping that the modules you will write about will give ideas for decoupling king from sockeye catches. I, for one, would be happy for the Board to create a regulation that kings may not be sold or bartered until healthy king runs are restored.

As most commercial fishermen know, it's not difficult to release a live king from your net. Most kings I have caught are more than happy to leave the net and keep swimming toward Kenai River.

It may take effort to convince the Board that the mortality rate for kings will drop nearly to zero if we roll kings out of our nets. I sure do hope they are willing to consider this option. Those who have done commercial fishing with nets will understand how easily it is to catch and release kings from our nets.

We must never have another summer like this one, where disaster could have been avoided if there had been better communication among all informed parties.

Let's all work together to save the kings! And let's catch and release kings to help do that. I don't think it will help much, since the likeliest culprits are a hundred to several hundred miles miles south of Cook Inlet setnetting. But if Cook Inlet commercial fishermen release all live kings, every one that makes it to Kenai River is one more that can help king runs be healthier. And let's hope that ADF&G can create (or work with Pacific Ocean fisheries to help create) regulations which will decrease the by-catch from fisheries farther to the south.

cormit
226
Points
cormit 09/04/12 - 06:44 am
0
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Kings

Kings released from set net gear ..... to be caught and released again and again ...... make their way to the Kenai River to be hooked and released some more? Really?

The mortality rate from this kind of handling would be unacceptable. Kenai bound kings deserve better treatment.

Also, they are not "by-catch". Set netters have harvested these stocks long before Kenai Guides decided they were theirs.

Post season escapement numbers suggest that Kenai king escapement would have likely been met without closing the East side set net season.

Let's make sure we're accurately counting kings with our new electronic equipment before turning to overreactive management.

julie
135
Points
julie 09/04/12 - 08:09 am
0
0
End Salmon Bycatch Petition

Trawler bycatch is the problem. I'm so sorry for all our setnetters. We need to regain control of our fish. http://signon.org/sign/end-salmon-halibut-bycatch

conklin007
2
Points
conklin007 09/06/12 - 01:53 pm
0
0
setnet/drift fleet catch shares

Just to clarify some points: In the 70's the typical catch share was 60% drift and 40% setnet. Then over time due to regulation changes, many of the setnets moved to the east side and the drift fleet spent a great deal of time fishing restricted corridors, the catch share flipped with the setnets harvesting the 60% share. Also, there was 1989 when the drift fleet share was 0% due to Exxon. So the drift fleet has seen both sides of this coin.
As far as kings go, the drift fleet simply does not catch them. In 2011, at a harvest for the drifters of 3.2 million sockeye, they caught just over 500 kings or about one per boat for the entire season. In 2012 it was even less, 191 out of 3.5 million total harvest, or one king to every 18,552 fish. Of these, most kings harvested were the little jacks at 2 to 5 lbs each. Allowing the drift fleet to fish has little or no effect on the number of spawning adult kings reaching the river and probably helps the over all king return by keeping the system from being overwhelmed by a flood of other salmon species.

wleman
11
Points
wleman 09/06/12 - 03:01 pm
0
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catch and release mortality rate

Cormit,

Kings are not gilled in set nets. Many just punch their way through, breaking web in the process. Others are pushed up against the net by the tide. These remain very much alive. If setnetters do not bruise or damage a king by bringing it into their boat, but, instead, simply roll the kind out of the net, there should be little, if any, increase in the mortality rate of kings caught and released from set nets.

Catch and release from hooks is a different matter. There the king fights against the hook and line for a significant amount of time. The hook can tear parts of the mouth of the king. Nets do not damage kings. However, if setnetters allow their nets to go dry in the tide and there is a king in a net, the king will be damaged. If it is without water long enough, it will die.

I think that the rate of survival for kings released from nets needs to be scientifically tested. The survival of king runs deserves it. And the survival of sockeye runs, which currently depend on harvest by setnetters, as well as drift fishermen, deserves it. The economic survival of setnet fisherman and each business who depends on their patronage deserve it. And the future return of the great sport of catching kings with hook and line deserves it.

cormit
226
Points
cormit 09/07/12 - 07:09 am
0
0
The survival of the east side

The survival of the east side set net fishery is huge to the local economy and the historic lifestyle as well.

I expect many Peninsula residents might underestimate what an impact it would be ...... should we loose this fishery.

To expect east side set netters to give up their historic share of kings ..... so they can then be available for the in-river commercial guide industry to catch ...... makes no sense.

On some years ..... the king catch by the east side set netters is about the same as the in river harvest ...... why is that unreasonable?

To expect the set netters to sit out an entire season over a questionable king count ..... is irresponsible management.

wleman
11
Points
wleman 09/07/12 - 04:01 pm
0
0
ADF&G management & setnetting

Cormit,

I agree with you. From our viewpoint it was "irresponsible management" on the part of ADF&G and the Board of Fisheries to close setnetters to save the king run, but I believe that they honestly considered it responsible. But we have to work with the system that we have. If that requires finding a way for setnetters to increase the number of kings getting past our nets while also fishing for sockeye, I think we would be wise to do so. I do not want to sit out any other seasons for the same reason we did this summer. But we can't vote for the change. We can only petition for changes and request biologically reasonable solutions to be tried.

polaris144
4
Points
polaris144 09/14/12 - 05:30 am
0
0
It seems to me that the king

It seems to me that the king problem isnt a cook inlet problem it seems to be through out the state so why cant alaska fish and game find the kings that are out to sea and tage them and see where they go ive got my ideas on why they dont id like to here yours .they have shut down in river king fishing and the set netters and i havnt herd any thing about why there hasnt been any kings .people cant just blame settnetters or the inriver fishermen

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