Methods for selective salmon harvest should be explored

Several parts of Alaska have experienced a multi-year decline in king salmon. In Cook Inlet the Department of Fish and Game responded in several ways. In 2012 that response including long closures for east-side setnetters. Due to these closures, east-side setnetters had their worst season in 70 to 100 years.

Since no one knows when king salmon stocks might rebound it would be appropriate for Fish and Game managers and politicians to consider ways for setnetters to harvest sockeye salmon without impacting king salmon. I’m proposing Selective Harvest Modules (SHM) as a method for doing just that and asking that they be tested in 2013. I’m not asking for public funds, only for state permission and oversight.

What are SHMs? Any harvest device that discriminates between fish species. A great example is cod pots. For over a hundred years cod have been caught on longlines, which are ropes with baited hooks tied about every 25 feet. Unfortunately, fishing for cod with longlines often results in a non-target catch of halibut. Responsibly, cod fishers have developed gear using baited crab pots with openings that allow cod to enter, but not the larger, flat-shaped halibut. Cod pots catch crab, but they are harmlessly returned to the water.

For salmon, SHMs would use seine leads to direct fish into live boxes, from which kings could be easily released and sockeye harvested in premium quality. While the concept borrows from reef nets and fyke nets, they are most similar to fish traps. One important difference is size. Cook Inlet fish traps were commonly about 1,200 feet long. SHMs would fish the same 210-foot swath of water that setnets currently fish. There isn’t anything new about using seine leads in connection with setnets. In lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak, where waters are clear, seine leads are an important part of setnet gear. The leads trap salmon in front of setnets and the salmon respond by trying to swim through the net.

In the east-side setnet fishery, offshore SHMs would have a live box in the center, between seine leads. Those SHMs nearest the shore would have the live box on the outside end of the seine lead. Once deployed, the SHMs could stay in the water all season, like the traps once did. A door in the live box would be closed when the fishery was open.

In testing these devices I’m likely to face many challenges. Logs, jellyfish, kelp, sharks, seals, seaweed and storms come to mind in rapid succession. I think those behemoths can be beat. The greatest hurdle may be legal issues. SHMs are a form of trap and, as Alaskan pioneers tend to remember, the state Constitution banned traps. Or did it? Actually, Ordinance No. 3 was adopted with the Constitution. But it appears to me to have been a vehicle for the State to pass laws banning fish traps, which, in 1959, the First Legislature did. AS 16.05.070 and AS 16.05.100 are laws that ban construction or use of traps for salmon. These laws, however, may be amended by simple majorities in both houses plus the governor’s approval

What was it about traps that was so atrocious that it led to the ban? It was ownership. Most traps were owned by nonresidents and giant corporations, who employed lobbyists to affect fishery management and taxes. Albeit in Cook Inlet, several residents owned traps, including Jack Edelman, Ed Grabowski, Jack Lewis, Paul Shadura, and Lillian Walli. My parents and Mrs. Walli, who was a widow, were friends. She and the other local owners were forgotten when traps were indiscriminately banned. 

How badly did traps out-fish gillnets, and could they have been managed to achieve escapements? In 1947 Cook Inlet setnets caught 72 percent of the king salmon harvest while traps caught just 28 percent. In fact, between 1947 and 1958 setnets caught more king salmon than traps did every single year. On top of that, after drifters entered the fishery in 1948, they usually caught more kings than traps did. Every year from 1925 through 1955 the Cook Inlet commercial fishery harvest exceeded 50,000 kings. Had sufficient escapement not been achieved, the king stocks would have crashed much sooner.

Setnetters are caught in a king salmon crisis. It’s time for them to take a cue from cod fishers and develop Selective Harvest Modules. If their operation proves functional, we can discuss how they should be used.

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