Commercial driftnet fishers will get their first opening of the 2000 season Monday, and expectations look favorable.
A run of 20,000 sockeye salmon is projected for the day, according to Jeff Fox of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Commercial Fisheries Division. The projection is based on fish counts from the Kasilof River, which numbered 10,000 on Friday and are expected to increase. Counts for the Kenai River are not available yet.
The opening will cover all areas of Cook Inlet's northern district except for the east side. From now until Aug. 7, drift fishing will be open every Monday and Thursday in all areas, except for three periods in July, which will be restricted to Kenai and Kasilof.
Drift fishers are optimistic about the coming season.
"A fisherman's expectation is always that every season will be bigger than the last one," said Steve Tvenstrup, a commercial fisher since 1974 and member of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. "But yes, we're hoping for a better season than last year."
There currently are 585 permitted driftnetters in Cook Inlet; Fish and Game has not issued any new permits for several years. Fox said 525 to 550 of these actually fished last year, down from previous years. Tvenstrup said he expects 80 to 100 boats to go out for Monday's opening.
"And if the weather is nice, maybe up to 125," he said, adding that the early runs are not as large as later runs, which will peak in mid-July.
"(The early run) is a fairly small and unproductive segment of the season," said Fox. "The fishermen are mostly there to shake out their gear and get all the kinks out and get ready for the real fishing later on. But we do garner some valuable information on early returns to the Kasilof from their results."
Those boats that do go out Monday can expect to receive $1.00 per pound for their catches of sockeye, although area fish processors will not post prices until the catch actually comes in later in the day.
"Kodiak is getting 80 cents right now, but our price in Cook Inlet usually runs a little higher," said Tvenstrup. "After the runs in Bristol Bay start coming in and we see what they're getting, our price changes accordingly. It depends on the number of fish. The run was late last year so the price went up to $1.40, but that went back down to $1.20 after Bristol Bay came in. But we should get at least $1.00."
Commercial fishing regulations for the 2000 season will remain much the same as last year, with one significant change. The state Board of Fisheries, at a special meeting in February, requested a change in regulations to protect the coho salmon in Cook Inlet. As a consequence, setnet fishers will be restricted in amount of gear and number of fishing days during the first week of August.
Setnetter usually account for 20 to 25 percent of the annual coho harvest; in-river sport fishing accounts for up to 80 percent. The commercial drift fleet takes only 4 percent as incidental catch, but Tvenstrup said these restrictions will affect them nonetheless.
"Our concern is mostly with over-escapement," he said. "By August, the sockeye run has already reached the upper end of the escapement goal. Less of a setnet catch at that time means more of those sockeye will enter the river instead of getting caught with the coho. Too many fish in the river means that next year's run is going to hatch out and there won't be enough food to support them. That does no good for commercial or sport fishing."
The Department of Fish and Game projects a total return of 4.5 million sockeye for this year. That is a little above average for the last few years, according to Fox, but below average for the long term.
Still, Tvenstrup remains optimistic and hopes for the best.
"Commercial fishing pumps a lot of dollars into our economy. We need a couple of good years so this community can have more money. The last few years have been pretty skinny."
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