The personal-use setnet fishery at the mouth of the Kasilof River is winding down and could close as early as Saturday.
Despite initial controversies, warm weather and hot fishing are bringing the popular and unique fishery to an early and successful close, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers.
"The fishery started out with strong catches," said Pat Shields, Fish and Game's assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries.
Usually the fishery lasts for 10 days. Last year, it was extended to 13. But this year, biologists' interviews with setnetters indicated that by Thursday catches had already reached target numbers in the range of 10,000 to 14,000 salmon. Today they will decide whether to issue an emergency closure for Saturday evening, he said.
The fishery, the only personal-use setnet opening in Cook Inlet, opened last Saturday at 6 a.m. Fishing has been open all week between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in one-mile corridors on either side of the mouth of the Kasilof River.
Prior to the opening, some people complained about overcrowding and bullying as fishers jockeyed for position on the beach. On opening day, the presence of state Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers put a damper on rival claims for prime net sites and led to citations for a few people who played loose with the rules.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Fishers pick salmon from an offshore net.
By M. SCOTT MOON, Staff
"We've been talking to quite a few of them," said Sgt. Dennis Chan, supervisor of Fish and Wildlife Protection on the Kenai Peninsula.
The officers explained that "reserving" spots and staking out the grounds ahead of time meant nothing. The regulations specify that the first people with their nets in the water when the fishery opened had the right to fish, he said.
Many people stayed up all night preparing for the opening or partying. When the time came, the tide was low and they had to wait until midday for the tides to bring in the fish.
Many, especially on the south end of the Cohoe Beach section, pulled in scores of ocean bright reds that first day.
Others to the north had smaller hauls. Some complained that they had been "corked" by the nets up the current and ended up with more of other people's fish guts than of salmon.
But the balmy weather and the law enforcement presence kept things mellow.
"They weren't really fighting for spots anymore," Chan said. "It was getting a little hot for a while. ...
"It has been pretty civil down there. Saturday was a nice, calm day. ... The first day is usually the worst."
As of Thursday, the officers on scene had collared some people for fishing without permits. They removed one set of gear that had no one watching it and issued a citation to one person.
"We had one out-of-state person cited for fishing without a permit and without a license," Chan said.
Shields said many people caught their limits within one or two days and left the beach. Wednesday was a perfect day for fishing, with great weather and empty spots on the beach.
But many setnetters say the problem of too many people on too little beach remains.
"Really, it's gotten nasty," lamented Ed McCoy, a retired veteran who has been participating in the fishery for 15 years and was back on the Cohoe Beach last weekend.
"We used to be able to fish up and down Cook Inlet," he said. "Now that they are jamming everybody in that one-mile corridor, it is causing neighbor to turn on neighbor."
McCoy said he spoke to the Fish Board when it decided to change the regulation in 1996. He came away with the impression that those in control did not understand how popular and important the fishery is.
"I tried to explain to them this is a trouble-making decision. ... It evidently fell on deaf ears," he said.
He also criticized the opening's timing by the clock rather than the tides.
"It is the same way all over when people start to move in," McCoy said.
Jeff Fox, the Fish and Game area management biologist for commercial fisheries, said the history of the fishery is complicated and often misunderstood. The wider area is not traditional and was only open for five years.
The personal-use fishery in the corridor near the river mouth was set up in 1982 to replace various subsistence fisheries in the area. In 1991, the Board of Fish changed the regulations limiting the fishing to about 18 specified days, but widening the area, he said.
"Most beaches on Cook Inlet were open," Fox said.
In 1996, new regulations closed down personal-use setnetting and expanded personal-use dipnetting instead. The Kasilof River fishery, with the corridor markers from the 1980s, was the only personal-use setnetting fishery retained, he said.
Fox said the Fish Board's intent in narrowing the setnet area was to focus the fishing pressure on Kasilof reds and reduce incidental catches of kings and silvers. Changes could be proposed at the Fish Board meetings coming up in February in Anchorage, when Cook Inlet issues will be on the table.
The system as it stands now does lead to complaints about crowding and bullying, but Fox attributed those to natural and unavoidable competition among impatient fishers for prime spots.
"It is fairly normal," he said. "Does what goes on down there now cause us great heartache? No. It's pretty limited to the first day. ... Right now it's kind of OK with us the way it's going."
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