Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were being criticized this week for failing to take effective measures to stem the flow of tens of thousands of sockeye salmon heading into the Kasilof River, a river that only halfway through the 2004 season already has exceeded its escapement goal under the river's management plan.
Too many fish hitting the spawning grounds can prove disastrous for future runs, according to biologists.
Apparently trapped by the language of the Kasilof River Salmon Management Plan approved by the Board of Fisheries last winter that requires one 48-consecutive-hour-long "window" for escapement each week, local fishery biologists were not permitted to open the normal fishing area to commercial fishers who might have intercepted large numbers of fish.
Instead, an unprecedented three-hour-long terminal fishery was called Wednesday afternoon around the mouth of the river, which put commercial set- and drift-gillnet fishers virtually on top of personal-use fishers already there.
While the management tool had been employed twice before in the mid-1980s on the Kenai River, Wednesday was the first time a terminal fishery had ever been used on the Kasilof, according to an area biologist.
"When you can project 275,000 escapement (for the season), the plan allows you to let commercial fishing take place in the closed waters at the mouth," explained Pat Shields, assistant commercial fisheries area management biologist at the Soldotna office.
"We are having a strong escapement," he said. "Through midnight last night (Wednesday) we were at 310,000 in the Kasilof."
The river's goal under the current plan had been set at between 150,000 and 300,000 fish, he said. As many as 92,000 fish may have escaped up the river Wednesday, Shields said, and indications were that another large escapement would head up the river Thursday.
"We've never been hit with that big an escapement in so short a time," he said.
Ken Tarbox, a former area biologist who helped manage the fishery during much of his 20-year career with the department until he retired in 2000, said Fish and Game officials cannot hide behind the board-approved management plan and argue they were unable to act in the emergency.
According to legal opinions issued last year and last week by two different Alaska Superior Court judges, board actions cannot be interpreted to prevent the commissioner of Fish and Game from ordering emergency openings whenever required. Yet, said Tarbox, Commissioner Kevin Duffy did not act.
Commissioner Duffy was unavailable for comment late Thursday afternoon.
Last year, members of the commercial fishing industry sued the state to get a ruling on what latitude the commissioner had to take steps outside a management plan. Judge Harold Brown ruled board regulations could not limit the authority given the commissioner to act by the Legislature.
More recently, Judge Charles Huguelet issued a restraining order against the state, the department, the commissioner and the board, essentially affirming Brown's ruling.
"What happened was that the Department of Fish and Game failed to exercise the authority they have," Tarbox said. "Last year, over 800,000 fish went into the rivers over the midpoint of the escapement goals."
Ed Dersham, chair of the Board of Fish, said recently that the plaintiffs had been counting fish over the minimum escapement number. Escapement goals are ranges, he said.
This year, Tarbox said, the department's failure to respond to the local situation has the Kasilof River already well above the upper end of the escapement range with more than half the run still on the way.
"The problem is not with local managers," Tarbox said. "The problem is with regional (Anchorage) and Juneau supervisors who, one, don't understand the fishery and, two, are reluctant to use, and in most cases are denying, the authority that the Legislature has given them."
Tarbox said fishers came in Monday averaging about 700 fish per boat. He said fishers reported observing lots of fish in the East Rip, a clear indication, he said, that a flood of fish was on the way.
"The area biologists knew that, but their hands were tied," he said, adding that a request to shorten the 48-hour window to 41 hours was turned down because it was contrary to the management plan.
Tarbox said it now comes down to whether the governor, through the commissioner and the professional staff, will manage the fishery in-season or whether that would be left in the hands of the board.
Tarbox said "a terrible precedent" was set last week when on July 5 the department went to the board to ask for authority for extra fishing time outside the management plan.
"They asked seven lay board members to make a decision on in-season management. They are not qualified to make that decision," he said, adding that a process of leaving in-season decisions up to local biologists that had been in place since statehood had been usurped.
"That is a major, major issue," he said. "It is reminiscent of federal management in the 1950s."
Dersham, chair of the Board of Fish, was fishing Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
"There is no doubt that when a terminal fishery has to be used on July 15, that it signals a failure of fishery management in Cook Inlet," Tarbox said.
How successful the terminal fishery was has not been determined. Early indications suggest there may have been enough set- and drift-gillnet fishers on the water to intercept as many as 30,000 salmon, according to Shields.
Shields acknowledged the potential for conflict when commercial and personal-use fishers are operating in close proximity.
"It's more palatable to use areas traditionally fished," he said. "I'm sure there were personal-use and sport fishers who probably didn't appreciate it. But we did go in for only a short period."
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