Watching salmon numbers

State manages for escapement

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Back in the days before statehood, Cook Inlet's salmon fishery was almost driven into the ground under management by the federal government -- a situation many say figured high in the drive for statehood.

"In the federal management days, they fished three or five days a week and didn't really take a look at how many fish made it into the river," said Jeff Fox, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

"They whittled down the runs to a point (where the runs) were in a pit and couldn't provide escapement," he added. "Now we have a number we shoot for and use emergency orders to allow more fishing."

State biologists have a range in the number of sockeyes and other species they'd like to see enter the rivers each year, which, all else being equal, will help ensure a healthy brood stock return five years down the road.

"We put in an escapement that will produce the most fish," Fox said.

Jim Arness of Nikiski worked a tender on Cook Inlet in 1947 and '48, and began driftnetting in 1949. He said he fished from 6 a.m. Monday to 6 p.m. Friday in the '50s.

"Definitely there were enough fish to support us," he said.

When the new state outlawed fish traps in 1959, the drift fleet exploded, Arness said. Before then, fishers never saw much of the federal enforcement agents.

"When the state took over, our times got shortened, but they still recognized that Monday and Friday were fishing days," he said.

He said the fishing periods the state introduced worked pretty well for Cook Inlet fishers. The last two seasons the sockeye salmon fishery has been Mondays and Thursdays, a move by the Alaska Board of Fisheries to better accommodate weekend sport fishers on the rivers, who increasingly have targeted reds.

Like many who use a gillnet to fish, Arness said he believes that the Alaska Board of Fisheries is stacked against people like him, in favor of sport fishing.

"I'm topping 50 years here, and I can't honestly say I see an awful lot of difference in the management between the feds and the state," he said. "That is, until the board changed."

He said he believes the board took a sharp turn in favor of sport fishers under Gov. Tony Knowles administration.

The big change since statehood is that the state now manages for what is called "maximum sustained yield." The purpose is to stabilize the run from year to year, said Fox.

"We try to take out the highs nobody can deal with and the lows so people don't gear up and the fish aren't there," he said. "Stabiliza-tion, that's the only reason we manage, otherwise, we'd just let it go."

Unmanaged stocks are subject to wild fluctuations in returns. Contrary to conventional wisdom, overescapement causes severe problems for runs.

Too many fish returning results in too many eggs laid, too many fry fighting over food and subsequent die-offs, resulting in smaller runs when the survivors return from the ocean.

The commercial fishery is biologists' main tool for controlling how many spawners enter the rivers. Fox said restrictions the Board of Fisheries have imposed could make it impossible, during a big run, to keep from putting too many fish up the Kenai.

"If we see a run something over 4 million, we would probably go over our escapement goal by a wide margin," Fox said. "We try to manage for escapement, but we're told don't do this, or this, or this. It's tough when we have our hands tied, especially when we're near the upper end of our goal."

He said his department has done some analysis of the large red runs of the 1980s and found that under current regulations, escapement would be 70 percent higher than current department goals.

One problem is a mandate to restrict driftnet fishers to a narrow corridor near the inlet's eastern shore during parts of the season to pass more salmon to the northern inlet.

Last year, there were only four openings when drift boats were allowed outside the corridor and into the open inlet.

"The management plan says we can't go past the corridor until a significant number of chums have passed, so additional periods are going to be difficult to come up with. We're pretty tight right now," he said.

Restricting drift boats to the corridor to pass Northern District chums could make it difficult to control a big run of sockeyes to the Kenai River because of the limited area driftnetters are allowed to fish.

Fox also said fishing more heavily on the 70 percent of sockeyes that come in July than the 30 percent that come in August has genetic implications for the fish, shifting the runs later and later.

Just as individual salmon return to the stream of their birth, they also return at the same time their parents did. A late-run fish will beget a late-run fish.

"The fish have different timing, and if you increase the numbers that return late, you continue to move that timing back," he said. "We want to harvest proportionally."

That means 70 percent of the commercial fishing effort should take place in July and 30 percent of the fishing effort should take place in August.

But that's not happening since commercial fishers cannot fish for reds in August, so as to protect silver salmon for sport fishers.

It's been suggested by Steve Colt, a University of Alaska economist, that the state bring back fish traps for their efficiency and the ability to screen out fish valuable to sport fishers. Others say purse seiners should be allowed in the inlet. Both methods hold live fish and would allow the operators to remove any kings in June, or silvers in August, and send them back on their way.

Traps were outlawed at statehood, and seiners were tried, without much success.

"We're using a test seiner and it's a real eye-opener," Fox said. "A seiner can only catch fish on certain parts of the tide and is useless the rest of the time. A gillnet fishes all the time."

Test fishing is one more tool in Fish and Game's arsenal of scientific management methods. It allows the department to put small electronic tags in the fish and track which river they go to.

They also are in the process of putting in video cameras in some inlet systems to watch the runs.

"Cell phones have helped," Fox said. "It allows us to talk to fishermen and find out what's going on out there."

Sonar was brought in to the Kenai River in 1968, because fish here couldn't be counted by hand due to the glacial silt in the water reducing visibility to just a few inches.

"Then we could count fish and scientifically manage stocks," Fox said.

However, sonar is fraught with problems. Sometimes it can't tell a red from a king -- important information to all fishers. (See related story, page A-1).

Newer sonar equipment was installed in the 1980s, and it will all be replaced soon with even more advanced units.

The advent of the enhanced Global Positioning System, which can pinpoint a boat to within a few feet using satellites in Earth's orbit, has allowed the department to draw better lines for fishers. It also has allowed driftnetters to better stay within those boundaries, saving them from fines and fish forfeitures.

But technology isn't the cure to everyone's woes.

"Right now, technology hasn't ramped up to benefit us much," Fox said. "All the stuff that has come up lately hasn't benefited fish counting."

He said the management struggles in Cook Inlet have always resulted in conflict, and probably will into the foreseeable future.

"The solution to one guy's problem causes problems for someone else," Fox said. "That's kind of the way it's been going in Cook Inlet for a while now.

"Is there a solution? Nothing will ever make everyone happy," he added. "At some point, you have to make a plan, decide what you're going to do and go for it."

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