Setnetters, sport fishers take another hit

Board of Fisheries tightens restrictions in effort to conserve Cook Inlet cohos

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2000

East side setnetters lose fishing time, northern district setnetters lose gear, and sport fishers face lower bag limits under rules passed Friday to conserve Cook Inlet coho salmon.

But the state Board of Fisheries put no new restrictions on the central district driftnet fishery during its meeting in Anchorage last week.

"What we did was cut the harvest opportunity for all user groups across Cook Inlet as closely as we could to the same amount, in light of what we know about their harvests and what we have done in the past to save cohos," said board chairman Dan Coffey. "Nobody escaped us this time, except the central district driftnetters. They escaped this time because they got hammered before."

The board was not scheduled to consider Cook Inlet until the winter of 2001-02, but it agreed to consider cohos out of sequence at the request of Gov. Tony Knowles.

Upper inlet commercial fishers target sockeye salmon, which run earlier than cohos. Particularly near the end of the season, though, they catch cohos with the sockeyes. Last week, the board cut several scheduled days from the end of the east side setnet fishery and said that between Aug. 1 and the new Aug. 7 closure, the Department of Fish and Game can add no more than one extra day of east side fishing to the regularly scheduled openings.

The board also cut the amount of gillnet northern district setnetters can use by a third, beginning each year with the last regularly scheduled opening in July.

It cut the sport-fishing bag limit for most Cook Inlet streams from three fish to two and cut the marine sport-fishing limit from six cohos to three. It closed the Kenai River to coho fishing for the first three days in August and closed sport fishing on several Knik Arm streams.

Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the board considered past regulatory actions and worked stream-by-stream and fishery-by-fishery to distribute the burden of conservation fairly.

"I think everybody came away stinging," he said.

Coffey said the new restrictions cut 34 percent from east side setnetters' coho catch, and cost them an average of 75,000 sockeyes each year -- 7 or 9 percent of their sockeye total.

Karl Kircher, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, said that during big sockeye runs, setnetters could lose twice that many sockeyes. He questioned why the board hit east side setnetters so hard, since they take just 8 percent of the inlet's coho catch and 14 percent of the catch from the Kenai River.

"No matter what you do to us, you can't carve a lot of cohos out of us," Kircher said. "Obviously, they had their sights set on us, and they were going to justify it somehow."

State biologists say cohos are declining throughout Southcentral Alaska and put much of the blame on decreased ocean survival. In several Knik Arm streams, spawning escapement chronically has fallen below state goals. In reports to the board, Fish and Game recommended cutting the harvest of Knik Arm cohos and taking "precautionary measures" to protect Kenai River cohos.

"I think the board ended up taking bigger precautionary steps on the Kenai River than they did in the northern district," said James Brady, central region supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. "We felt the more compelling issues were in the northern district."

Kircher said setnetters will never recoup fishing days the board took away, but on the Kenai River, sport fishers simply can fish more days later. He questioned the effects of cutting bag limits, since many sport fishers never caught the former limit of three.

"It seems like they took modest precautionary measures in the river and extreme precautionary measures in the inlet," he said. "I think they allocated more fish to the in-river sport fishery."

Coffey said the goal was to share the burden fairly between user groups. Combining restrictions imposed in 1997 and those imposed last week, east side setnetters have lost 43 percent of their previous coho catch, he said.

The combined 1997 and 2000 restrictions cut the sport and personal use coho catch by roughly 41 percent. They cut the coho catch of northern district setnetters by 56 percent, "which is the worst imbalance of the bunch," he said.

According to Coffey, past restrictions to the central district driftnet fleet already have cut the drift fleet's coho catch by 42 percent, so no additional action was needed last week.

Phil Squires, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said he worries that increasing curbs on commercial fishing will make it impossible for Fish and Game to slow big sockeye runs. Overcrowding the Kenai River clearly reduces future sockeye production, he said.

Coffey, though, said that is simply an economic argument, since exceeding escapement goals reduces production but does not threaten survival of the run.

"When economics runs up against (coho) conservation, conservation wins," he said.

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