Posted: Monday, June 20, 2005

Commercial boats floatBy MATT TUNSETHPeninsula ClarionWith the first eastern Cook Inlet commercial fishing opener set for today, area commercial fishers are busy getting nets mended and engines tuned in preparation for what is shaping up to be a solid season.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency opening running from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday for setnet fishers in the Kasilof section of the upper Cook Inlet subdistrict. The closure for the drift gillnet fishery in the Kasilof Section within 2 miles of shore also is no longer in effect, and regular Monday and Thursday openings for set and drift fishers will continue until Fish and Game says otherwise.

The 2-mile from shore closure for drift gillnets in the Kenai and East Forelands sections will remain until those areas open for the regular season July 11.

According to Fish and Game area commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox, a strong return of sockeye salmon to the Kasilof led to the early opener.

"So far it's the highest escapement to date we've had," Fox said.

Already, nearly 50,000 sockeye have entered the Kasilof, and Fox said the total return to the Kasilof could be as high as 1 million — more than last year's bumper return of 911,000 sockeye. He said that although it's still early, all indications are that the Kasilof will be extremely productive this season.

"It's early and it's large," he said of the run.

Commercial fishers getting ready of the season are hopeful this year could be good for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

"I think it'll be a pretty fair run,"said drifter Steve Farnsworth while working to install a new reel setup on his boat, the Torpedo, near the Kenai docks.

Nobody argues that plenty of fish are headed to Cook Inlet streams. The big question — as always — is price. Processors won't give out numbers, leaving fishers to speculate as to what price may be paid for their haul.

"It's a bunch of rumors," said Randy Renner, owner of Silvertip Net and Gear in Kasilof.

Judging by the activity along the beaches from Nikiski to Kasilof, most fishers believe the season could be decent. Laura Blanchard's beach site was a hive of activity Sunday, as some of the site's nearly 30 workers — most of them Blanchard's family members or friends — mended nets and worked to get one of the site's skiffs seaworthy.

"We're trying to get that one ready," Blanchard said, watching crew members work on the boat.

Speculation about price and returns aside, Blanchard said she's excited to be getting ready for another season at the beach — this year will be her 31st — fishing for salmon with her family.

She said she continues to stick with the industry in spite of the low prices that have been paid since the early 1990s, when the Japanese market crashed under the weight of a glut of farmed salmon on the market.

"Through thick and thin, I do my best for the family and now the grandkids," she said. "They're growing up in the industry, and eventually they'll take it over — if it's still there for them."

The chance of the Cook Inlet commercial fishing industry continuing into the future is looking better this season than perhaps at any in the past decade. Most fishers weren't willing to speculate on price, but cautious estimates by those who would indicate prices could be in the range of 75 to 85 cents. That's a far cry from prices that used to be well over a dollar, but an increase over the past couple years.

Most in the industry say it appears marketing and education efforts on behalf of wild salmon appear to be paying dividends as more people learn that farmed fish contain chemical dyes and are fed specialized fish food while swimming in large pens.

"The fresh market in the U.S. is better than any time in history," Farnsworth said. "They're screaming for fish."

He noted that's starting to show, as news reports and marketing efforts are showing American consumers are getting the message.

"People are realizing that farmed fish is not good for you and wild fish is the ticket," he said.

Fishers aren't without their gripes, however. Many blame the Alaska Board of Fisheries for cutting down on fishing time in an effort to marginalize the industry in favor of sportfishers.

"They overescape these rivers every year to run commercial fishing out," said Steve Clark, who fishes out of the Shogun and has been fishing salmon in Cook Inlet for 28 years.

Clark said political wrangling at the Board of Fish level has caused overescapements that hurt the fisheries biologically and cut down on the amount of fish commercial nets can take.

"It's all politics," Clark said. "The biologists have no power. Biologists want to manage biologically, the Board of Fish wants to manage it politically."

Still, despite the politics, most inlet fishers appear to be upbeat heading into the 2005 season.

"The predictions on the Kasilof and Kenai sound good," Blanchard said — though she said fishers won't really know until they start getting their nets wet.

"I'm hearing stories, but that's all they are."

All Contents ?Copyright 2001, The Peninsula Clarion and Morris Digital Works.

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