Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery stakeholders should be concerned with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2017 sockeye forecast for many reasons — not the least of which is that the predicted low harvest will inject even more economic and allocation concerns into the debate when the Board of Fisheries meets in February.
This past week, the Alaska Journal of Commerce reported that Fish and Game is forecasting a return of 4 million sockeye salmon, with an expected commercial harvest of 1.7 million — about 1.2 million fish less than the 20-year average harvest.
Based on 2016 prices, a harvest of 1.7 million sockeye would be worth $10.4 million to Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, which is roughly half the value of this year’s harvest of 2.4 million fish.
Fish and Game biologists point to the potential for numerous factors to be impacting sockeye salmon returns, from ocean conditions to high escapements over the past several years.
For the fish board, which sets fishery regulations, seeing a low sockeye forecast ahead of an Upper Cook Inlet meeting is akin to the economy taking a dive right before a presidential election. Each side will have its own theory as to who or what has caused the decline — and that certainly will color the debate at the Board of Fisheries meeting.
Indeed, Andy Hall, a sockeye setnetter and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Coalition, told the Journal as much.
“I had a couple fishermen write to me and say they’re alarmed. It’s going to color how we respond to some of the proposals that go to the Board of Fisheries this year,” Hall said.
Even when salmon returns are expected to be strong, divvying up fish between commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen is a contentious process. With a low return, expect it to be even more so, especially with the growing political clout of personal-use fishermen and a fair amount of uncertainty following the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on state salmon management.
And with millions of dollars at stake, fish board members will have their work cut out for them in balancing economic and allocation issues with fishery conservation.
We hope that all involved in the upcoming debate remember this: the Kenai Peninsula thrives when all user groups are accounted for in a fair and balanced manner when it comes to management policy decisions. For too long, influence on the fish board has belonged to one user group or another — commercial fishing 20 or 30 years ago, sport fishing in more recent regulatory cycles — without balance between the two.
However, the fish board enters the current cycle with new members and, hopefully, a better sense of what it will take to balance competing stakeholder interests with what should be the top priority — conservation of a fishery crucial to the economic and social well being of the Kenai Peninsula.