Depending on who you asked Wednesday evening, changes passed by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Anchorage on Cook Inlet management plans were either a step in the right direction or a stumble backward.
The board made changes to several commercial and sport regulations Wednesday, following a marathon round of mostly behind-the-scenes maneuvering by various Cook Inlet user groups.
Among the most prominent changes are new rules designed to allow inlet commercial drift fishers to fish sockeye salmon earlier in the season and to allow Kenai River sport anglers the chance to harvest coho salmon through the end of October.
However, the board failed to do away with controversial "window" periods that east side setnetters say are causing too many fish to escape up the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
Following the meeting, commercial drift and sport fishing industry representatives said they were happy with the board's decision.
"It's all a compromise," said United Cook Inlet Drifters Association President Roland Maw.
Maw said the board action, which granted drifters additional time in July and August, will help fishers get to fish sooner and spread the harvest out more, something that will add to the overall quality of the product.
"One of the things we wanted to do was maintain the quality of the fish from the water to the processor," Maw said.
He said the new regulations will allow drifters to fish "earlier and harder."
Kenai River Sportfishing Association President Ron Rainey said his group was pleased with how the board's decision came down, mainly because of the level of cooperation behind the scenes between sport and commercial interests.
"I think it was great to have different fishing groups sitting down and talking," Rainey said.
The changes passed by the board will allow managers to grant setnet fishers more hours of emergency order fishing time than is allowed under the existing management plan, while central district drift fishers will be allowed additional openings.
Additionally, the Kasilof River management plan was amended to allow commercial fishing north and south of the river to begin once that river has reached an in-river sonar estimate of 50,000 sockeye.
Under regulations in place until now, the season could not begin until June 25.
However, because the mandated windows were allowed to remain in place, setnet fishers said they were far from happy with the outcome of Wednesday's meeting.
Paul Shadura, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, said the whole problem with managing Cook Inlet fish is that biologists have their hands tied by the window provisions. Because many fish can enter a river system in a short period of time, setnetters say the windows essentially allow huge numbers of fish to swim upstream past fishers who are forced to sit on the beach.
"The setnetters definitely got the bottom end of the stick," Shadura said.
The windows enacted by the board Wednesday essentially are modified versions of those passed in 2002. The new regulations say in years when the total return of fish to upper Cook Inlet is between 2 million and 4 million, setnetters must be closed for one 36-hour period and one additional 24-hour period each week, with the 36 hours mandated to begin between 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. Friday.
In years of more than 4 million fish, only the 36-hour window will apply.
Board of Fish Chair Art Nelson said he believes the overall scope of the changes made go a long way toward addressing concerns that biologists don't have enough flexibility when managing Kenai and Kasilof runs.
"Hopefully, this will keep things from going well over the top end of the escapement goals," Nelson said.
Sportfishing advocates say the windows allow a steady pulse of fish to enter the river systems, allowing personal use and sportfishers a predictable harvest opportunity.
"I think it's going to put more fish into the river when we need them," KRSA's Rainey said.
Kenai River guide Rondi McClure said she believes the board's decision went a long way toward bringing sport and commercial users to the same table.
"The groups are starting to get together," McClure said.
Shadura said the actions taken Wednesday demonstrate the influence of KRSA and the in-river sport fishing industry over the board, and he directed his frustration toward the organization's founder.
"This board is obviously pro (KRSA founder) Bob Penney," Shadura said. "He still influences fisheries in the state, regardless of who the governor is."
One additional change enacted by the board Wednesday deals with Kenai River coho salmon. Saying there is no conservation concern on the Kenai stocks, the board voted to allow fishing for silvers to begin Aug. 1 and extend through the end of October.
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