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A recipe for disaster

Posted: August 7, 2011 - 7:00am

Many Alaskans enjoyed our recent Kenai and Kasilof river red salmon harvests. Commercial fishermen had huge catches in their gillnets; sport fishermen and personal-use dipnetters' filled up their freezers with the abundant red salmon. The ADF&G managers' implementation of their Maximum Sustain Yield theory had proven again to provide for good returns of red salmon. 

Maximum Sustain Yield is a theory that maintains that if you allow the correct salmon escapement numbers into your river you will have a consistent high return of that specie of salmon. Biologists' must determine the maximum escapement number, and then attempt to kill the surplus salmon with extra harvest opportunities to the various user groups. Problem: when you leave millions of feet of gillnet in the east-side of the Central District of Cook Inlet for continuous days of commercial fishing you will overharvest king and silver salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. The last few decades has placed the Kenai and Kasilof late-run king salmon and our early-run silver salmon under the Minimum Sustain Yield program. 

Our Cook Inlet salmon fishery collapsed in the early 1960s due to over-fishing by commercial fisheries. Limited Entry and the 200 Mile Limit in the 1970s helped to facilitate a return of our salmon fisheries in 1976. In the 1980's ADF&G started allowing "emergency fishing periods" to control the surplus red salmon; the use of nearly continuous commercial fishing periods from mid July into the first week of August became standard procedure. The use of back-to-back commercial fishing periods decimated our healthy late-run king and early-run silver salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers; you then couple that mismanagement practice to a king salmon sonar unit with bogus data, and a nonexistent silver salmon escapement plan and you have a recipe for a fisheries disaster.

In recent years, Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska has experienced some very low returns for king salmon; it has become apparent that the answer to this problem lies in the saltwater. We have learned that the Pollack trawlers have for decades been catching huge amounts of king salmon in Alaskan waters as an accidental harvest (which they cannot legally sell). For example: In 2007 the pollock trawlers took 120,000 king salmon in the Bering Sea; in 2010 they took 54,000 in the Gulf of Alaska. The  removal of hundreds of thousands of king salmon by these trawlers has resulted in king salmon closures in the Yukon, Nushagak, Karluk, Deshka, and the Kenai rivers. ADF&G maintains that one-third of the upper Cook Inlet king salmon streams have not met minimum escapement goals in the last decade.

I am aware of the mismanagement of our salmon fisheries because I have been a professional Kenai river fishing guide for over 30 years. There is a reason why anglers have spent millions of dollars in our local economy while pursuing one of the largest genetic strains of king salmon in the world; our disrespect for these giant salmon can be likened to cutting down redwood trees for firewood.

So I would encourage you Alaskans who believe all is well with our salmon fisheries to enjoy your pollock fish sticks and your canned red salmon. You are not going to see many king and silver salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers until you allow them to enter their ancestral spawning grounds.

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