Catch-and-release decision should be scrapped King plan fails us all

Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002

When longtime Board of Fisheries observers hailing from diverse interest groups all slam the board process in this newspaper, we must suspect that "something is rotten in Denmark."

Indeed, when Les Palmer (Peninsula Clarion outdoor writer and sports fish advocate), Doug Blossom (eastside setnetter and commercial fishing advocate) and Ken Tarbox (former Fish and Game biologist and environmental advocate) team up to register serious complaints about the recently completed Cook Inlet meeting, we should all take notice.

Actually, based on the number of negative letters to the editor in both local and Anchorage papers as well as the many critical blasts directed at the fish board on the local radio program Sound-Off, perhaps Alaskans have taken due notice.

At the crux of the problem this time is a board process that produced a "failed upon arrival" early king salmon management plan for the Kenai River. The plan is not just a real stinker, it is a disaster for the fish, for the biology of the Kenai system, for local and Alaska resident fishermen, for tourists and nonresident fishermen, for Fish and Game management and for the economy of the Kenai Peninsula.

The new plan produced by the board makes absolutely no sense to anyone who is knowledgeable about the Kenai River. What is the problem, how did this fiasco happen, and where do we go from here?

The main problem was that the old plan did not need a total makeover, it just needed a little tweak to give the larger 5-ocean fish a little help in recovering from a downward trend. Instead of a tweak, the early plan was twiddled down the toilet by the board. With the new plan, we end up exclusively targeting the very component of 5-ocean fish that the original proposal sought to protect.

Only those king salmon 55 inches and over may now be retained after June 10. Admittedly, there are not many fish of that size expected to return this year. (If you do the biology and the math you will discover that this year's 5-ocean return of kings will stem from the adult fish that spawned during the 1995 flood that raised havoc with the Killey River system, the major early run spawning grounds.)

Still, do you develop a plan that aims to harvest the "last survivor?" The problem is not that just a few fish over 55 inches may be harvested. The problem is that very likely most fish brought to the boat over 50 inches will be played out, netted, stretched out by at least two sets of hands, and then measured two or three times. And of course the obligatory picture will be taken before it is released.

That this will happen is just a fact of human nature. Most local anglers and competent guides are going to know when a fish is 2 or 3 inches or so under keeper size. But believe me, they are going to go ahead and measure them anyway "just to be sure," especially in the presence of their friends or paid clients.

A study by Fish and Game suggests that hook and release mortality on Kenai king salmon is 7 to 8 percent overall for fish of all size categories. If you have ever tried to measure a king salmon over 50 inches in the net you know the problems involved. It is a very difficult task to accurately measure a fish of this size and invariably leaves the net with scales and slime and the fish in a stressed-out condition.

While this has long been an acceptable practice in this fishery, the difference now is that these larger fish are reported to be in a downward trend by Fish and Game and may be in need of additional protection.

That is just one problem with the new plan.

Another major problem: The Board of Fish has reduced Fish and Game's Emergency Order (E.O.) authority to make in-season management decisions based on run strength. This is the way salmon runs are managed all over the state.

E.O. is by far the best management system possible, given the uncertainty of salmon returns and lack of reliable forecasts. If the run comes in weak, harvest measures are restricted or the fishery is closed down completely. If the run comes in strong, regulations can be relaxed. This form of management was one of the great benefits of statehood, and within just a few years of being implemented, it helped revive depleted salmon populations around the state.

Now, the new plan has reduced Fish and Game's in-season ability to adapt harvest strategy to run strength. While it may be still possible to open up the fishery to catch and keep after June 10, the requirements are stricter and local management flexibility has been reduced. The opportunity for local anglers (as well guided anglers from all over the world) to partake in this fishery not just for the sport of it, but to put salmon on the dinner table, has been diminished.

A third problem: The new plan, while attempting to protect the main body of 5-ocean fish, is so overly restrictive in this area that it needlessly protects the majority of 4-ocean fish as well. No one, including Fish and Game biologists, has identified any problem with the 4-ocean component of the run, yet harvest of an estimated 80 percent of these fish may be denied by the new regulation, which includes a 40-inch size limit in effect until June 10.

When asked to suggest a size limit to protect the vast majority of 5-ocean fish, Fish and Game biologists came up with 45 inches. This would have protected all of the larger 5-ocean fish (except for those over 55 inches) and even most of those with slower growth genes. It would have also made available for potential harvest more than 70 percent of fish in the 4-ocean age class.

The magnitude of this harvest could easily be controlled by Fish and Game's in-season E.O. authority. Yet, for some reason, the board declined the data provided by experts and decided to impose a smaller 40-inch limit until June 10. If harvest is allowed after June 10 by E.O., it will still be with the 40-inch restriction.

This action was a big slap in the face to resident anglers who have participated in this fishery for many years. "Joe Fisherman" has now been severely restricted during the early portion of the run and quite possibly totally shut off from the later return -- and not for a valid biological reason.

Due to low water conditions in the river and run timing, many locals do not even begin to participate in this fishery until early June. Now, by regulation, they and guided anglers as well may be shut off from any early-run harvest (except for fish over 55 inches) after June 10.

One final problem: The plan allows for the use of bait by E.O. during the hook-and-release period. If the run is strong enough to allow the use of bait, it should be strong enough to allow the retention of fish.

This was truly a ludicrous decision by the board that catered heavily to an interest group's personal agenda. Why should we be permitted to endlessly "play" with fish when we are being denied the right to retain them under a conservation purpose? No bait tends to keep both angler effort and fish handling down to a minimum, which should be one of the goals of a hook-and-release salmon fishery.

What is really hard to understand is why these changes were made? There seems to be no individual, no sport fishing group, no guide organization, and no Fish and Game representative who will take responsibility for changes to the plan. All seem to claim that they did not author or support the new plan. So just who did?

If I could paraphrase an old saying, "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan." This new plan is definitely a bona fide failure, yet somehow made its way through the committee process and was passed by the Board of Fisheries.

I have read in this paper that the Kenai River Sportfishing Association's executive director, Brett Huber, was instrumental in promoting the stability argument, exclusive catch and release, and other components of the plan. There are claims KRSA was coveting special interests and promoting sport fishing for elitists, rather than locals. Perhaps this will be a good line of questioning for legislator's to take during the upcoming confirmation hearings for Huber's appointment to a fish board seat.

Then again, we may have to wait to get a copy of the board meeting transcript to sort this all out. In the meantime we need to lay the groundwork to overturn this plan and get a plan back that is based on biological management -- not the Stone Age concept of management by stability. Salmon returns are far from stable, and there must be flexibility allowed in management.

For those who do not want to live with this Neanderthal plan for the next three years, there is a process available through the Board of Fish to overturn it and to make the necessary changes to bring it back to biology-based management.

Actually, Round 1, the petition process, has already been attempted by an assortment of sport fishing interests and by the Alaska Outdoor Journal. Petitions to change the early-run plan were presented at the March Board of Fisheries hearing and were roundly rejected by the board due to lack of a conservation emergency. What these petitions did accomplish was to alert the board that there was wide spread dissatisfaction with the early king salmon plan and to lay the groundwork for Round 2, the agenda change process, next fall.

Under this process the Board of Fish will accept an agenda change request only:

for a fishery conservation purpose or reason;

to correct an error in regulation; or

to correct an effect on a fishery that was unforeseen when a regulation was adopted.

The board will not accept an agenda change request that is predominantly allocative in nature in the absence of new information found by the board to be compelling.

I believe there are good reasons for the board to accept an agenda change. Since this is not a predominantly "fish-allocation" issue, the board should find no reason for rejection of the request in this clause. Helping to "set the table" for a review of the plan this fall is Fish and Game Sport Fish Division Director Kelly Hepler.

Apparently recognizing the extreme dissatisfaction by this community and nearly all river user groups with the outcome of the early Kenai king plan, Mr. Hepler has already instructed his staff "to initiate a series of public meetings this fall to discuss alternatives for providing reasonable access to this resource while protecting larger fish." This will be a good start and fits in well with the agenda change process.

If the board accepts the agenda change request next fall, it would then schedule a full hearing on the issue for a meeting sometime in the 2002-03 cycle. The support of all Kenai River user groups and organizations, the tourism industry, local governments and individual users will be needed next fall to bring this about.

Based on what I am hearing from this community, there should be little problem in garnering overwhelming support for an early review and revamping of this plan. The formation of a new local-based sportsmen's organization to coalesce this support and to better represent the interests of the Kenai River, its resources and its users is sorely needed. This is going to take a lot of support and hard work from river users and community members, but in the words of JFK, "Let us begin."

Loren Flagg is a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who lives on the Kenai River in Soldotna. He has been a sport fishing guide for the past 15 years.

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