Drift fleet nets more restrictions: Fish board makes changes based on coho salmon concerns

Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Alaska Board of Fisheries began working its way through the hundreds of proposed regulation changes for Upper Cook Inlet finfish at the Egan Center in Anchorage Tuesday.

Out of the 211 proposals submitted by the public, various fishing organizations and even the board itself, the board made it through 22 related to commercial fishing, drift gillnetting and the Northern District Salmon Management Plan.

On Monday, the seven-member board took strong measures to try and conserve the declining Susitna sockeye salmon by restricting commercial drift gillnet fishing in the inlet for one period from July 9 to July 15.

Tuesday's meeting made policy that further restricts the Cook Inlet drift fleet in the interest of Northern District coho salmon. The proposal revises the fishery's management plan and directs the department "to manage the commercial drift gillnet fishery to minimize the harvest of Northern District and Kenai River coho salmon in order to provide sport and guided sport fishermen a reasonable opportunity to harvest these salmon stocks over the entire run."

"What I'm concerned about and what maybe other members are concerned about are getting Northern District cohos up north," said the board's vice chairman, Karl Johnstone of Anchorage.

The proposal, submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Matanuska-Susitna Mayor's Blue Ribbon Sportsman's Committee, restricts the drift fleet from fishing in drift gillnet area 1, in the waters south of Kalgin Island, for two regular periods from July 16 to July 31. The proposal was amended to instead allow drifters to fish in expanded Kenai and Kasilof sections of the inlet during these periods.

Board member John Jensen of Petersburg was against the further restrictions to the drift fleet.

The proposal doesn't "restrict time but it restricts 95 percent of their fishing area." He said. "The gillnet fleet's coho catch has gone down in the last 10 years. I'm not going to go for this big of a chunk of closed area."

According to Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game's commercial fishing division, anywhere from 6,500 to 25,000 coho were harvested in the Cook Inlet's drift gillnet area 1 in the past five years. For sockeye, the numbers were in the hundreds of thousands.

"We're talking taking a major bite out of the drift fleet's opportunity to harvest these fish," said Vince Webster, the board's chairman.

While some board members worried the restrictions would hurt commercial drifters' ability to make a living, others said protecting the stocks of concern were the main priority.

"The reason we would be doing this is to move fish to the Northern District," said board member Bill Brown, of Juneau. "The trade-off is not nearly as dramatic as its being made out to be."

After lengthy discussion and a few amendments, the board passed the proposal 6-1.

Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said the new regulation would harm the fleet financially.

"They cost our drift fleet literally millions of dollars and the families that depend upon that fishery billions of dollars," he said. "And there never was a coho conservation concern that was clearly identified as to why they did it."

"They've taken away supposedly a sockeye day, two coho days. They've taken away three days out of area 1 and that's where this fleet historically has made its living," Maw added.

But he said he was further disappointed by the board's later decision to pass a proposal that limits the Northern District's commercial harvest of the salmon.

The board passed a proposal that liberalizes gear restrictions to two set nets instead of one for salmon in the Northern District after July 30, but only on the west side of the inlet.

"The show we saw today was, 'Oh, those poor folks up north are suffering we got to send fish north to them,' only to have at the end of the day, 'ha ha, we fooled you, you're not going to get them either,'" Maw said.

Page Herring, a Kodiak resident and a member of the Northern District Setnetters Association, said the justification to restrict the drift fleet was to get fish to setnetters like her.

"But we can't have them," she said. "You're passing coho to the Northern District for us but it's not going to happen because it's not really for us, they're re-allocated is all."

She said the fish were being re-allocated to the rivers and Mat-Su area fishing guides.

Dave Goggia, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association said he had "mixed feelings" about the board's decision on the same proposal that liberalizes the commercial set net fishery on the west side of Cook Inlet.

"The board made some moves to get some cohos up to the Northern District but in the end it seemed like they gave some of them to the commercial fishing," he said.

But Goggia said the proposals that really matter to him -- and affect Kenai River sport fishing guides -- will be taken up by the board in the next couple days.

The Board continues its deliberations today on proposals regarding the Kenai and Kasilof River Sockeye Salmon Management Plans.

In other action, the fish board:

* Passed a proposal under the Alexander Creek king salmon action plan considerations liberalizing the northern pike fishery.

* Changed the in-river goals and optimal escapement goals for Kenai and Kasilof sockeye salmon to reflect the sonar technology conversions from the Bendix sonar to DIDSON.

* Modified the Northern District King Salmon Management Plan to articulate recreational use priority

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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