The Department of Fish and Game halted a cost-recovery setnet fishery Thursday night after hearing angry outcries from local fishers that the effort was targeting early-run Russian River sockeye salmon.
Since Tuesday morning, two vessels were set-netting for sockeye salmon to fund the department's offshore test fishery in July that forecasts the sockeye run. One vessel was in the Kenai and the other was between Clam Gulch and Ninilchik, according to Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.
Area sportfishermen are frustrated with Fish and Game, after the temporary closure of the Kenai River limited fishing time last week. Then, as soon as the river re-opened, the state had started its own commercial fishery.
Shields said pressure from on high played a role in the closure of the cost-recovery fishery when upper-level department heads caught wind of the effort.
"Because of the issues that were raised we were instructed here in Soldotna that the fishery will end tonight," he said Thursday.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association sent a letter Wednesday expressing concerns to Gov. Sean Parnell as well as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Denby Loyd.
"Obviously when you're a commercial fishery manager you're always aware your decisions are looked at with a great deal of scrutiny within the sport community," Shields said, but "we were somewhat surprised by the level of shock and angst and anger that we heard about."
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the fishery should not even be referred to as "cost-recovery."
"It's a fundraising effort," he said.
Citing policy, Gease said the Board of Fisheries has allocated early-run sockeye to the sport fishery for 30 years, with no "direct commercial harvest of fish."
The Russian River sockeye salmon sport fishery is one of the most popular in the world, he said, and the state has spent a long time building this fishery up.
"This is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game setting policy that ignores long-standing Board of Fish policy," he said. "They just did it in the middle of the night without getting input. Either they were nave in thinking nobody would get upset about it or they were arrogant thumbing their nose at the public process."
Shields said the intent of the cost-recovery was to catch 3,500 to 4,000 sockeye or some $50,000 worth to offset the cost of the research test fishery that takes place from Anchor Point to the west side of Cook Inlet. The department contracted with processing company Icicle Seafoods for $2.25 per pound of red salmon.
"The cost-recovery fishery will end tonight regardless if we make the goal or not," Shields said Thursday. He said the department anticipated it would be near its goal when the fishery stopped by midnight Thursday.
As of Wednesday at midnight, 2,600 red salmon and 26 king salmon had been harvested.
Shields said he estimated that by the closure of the fishery some 3,600 reds (1,100 from the Kenai) and about 40 kings would have been caught.
"It's not a number that's going to wipe the stock out. That run of fish is (in the) tens of thousands," he said. "People should be concerned; I understand that. But we're not wiping out the Russian River run."
Sheilds said that cost-recovery varies on what seafood processor gets the bid. Prior to this year cost-recovery efforts have typically taken place along the Blanchard Line between the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, Shields said.
The department's offshore test fishery, which is funded in part by the cost-recovery fishery, has been going on for some 30 years during July to look at the timing and size of the season's incoming sockeye salmon run.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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