Both commercial and recreational fishers have seen a host of changes since Tony Knowles became governor in 1994.
Sport fishers have taken hits. To conserve cohos, the Board of Fisheries closed the Kenai River to coho fishing the first three days of August, cut the daily limit in many Cook Inlet streams from three cohos to two, and cut the limit in salt water from six cohos to three.
To conserve cohos, the board has closed the outlets of Kenai and Skilak lakes from January to early June. To conserve kings, the board has enacted seasonal closures on the Kenai River near the outlets of Killey River, Funny River and Slikok Creek.
The board also reduced the number of passengers Kenai River guides can carry from five to four and banned guides from fishing Sundays during May and June.
Even so, commercial fishers view many of the board's actions as allocations from commercial to recreational fisheries. The board dramatically increased Kenai River escapement goals to put more sockeyes up the river for sport anglers, and raised the sport-fishing limit from three sockeyes to six.
To favor weekend dipnetters and anglers, it changed the regular Friday commercial openings to Thursdays and restricted the ability of managers to grant Friday emergency openings for setnetters near the Kenai River.
For two days each year at the peak of the sockeye run, the board has restricted driftnet boats to the "corridor," a narrow sliver of water near the inlet's eastern shore. That is a big blow to drift fishers, since the best fishing is near the middle of the inlet.
The board also has forbidden any emergency districtwide driftnet openings -- which might take advantage of surges in sockeyes -- until it adopts pink and chum salmon management plans. Until then, drift boats are confined to the corridor for any emergency openings state managers add to the regularly scheduled periods.
To put more kings up the Kenai, it moved the season opening for setnetters near the Kenai River from July 1 to July 7.
To pass more cohos to the northern inlet, the board cut six days from the end of the driftnet season. It also changed the season closure for eastern inlet setnetters from Aug. 15 to Aug. 7, and set a limit of one emergency opening for east side setnetters during August. It cut the length of gillnet allowed to Northern District setnetters by a third, beginning the last regular period in July.
"The department loses emergency order authority. How can you manage a fishery without it?" asked setnetter Rob Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association.
Many of the changes came last year, when following several years of poor coho runs, Knowles asked the board to hold a special meeting and pass coho conservation measures. The board also cut sport-fishing seasons and limits. Commercial fishers say Knowles called the meeting at the request of Bob Penney, an Anchorage businessman and sport fishing advocate.
"The end result was a reallocation of resources," said Kenai drift skipper Drew Sparlin. "They took fish from commercial fishermen and reallocated them to the rivers to be harvested by the guided sport-fishing industry."
Ironically, the 2000 coho run was among the strongest in recent memory. But the board had made no provision for easing restrictions if cohos recovered. There also was a bumper run of pinks, and on Aug. 9, commercial fishers, smarting from a disastrous sockeye season, asked the Department of Fish and Game for an emergency opening to catch them.
"In the past, we would have put the drift boats and the east side setnetters out for pinks," said Jeff Fox, area biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries.
But with the commercial closures written into regulation, the department could not open fishing. On Aug. 18, commercial fishers petitioned the board for an opening. On Aug. 22, the board concluded the bulk of the pinks had passed, and a commercial opening likely would target cohos. The answer was no.
"There were 10 or 15 million humpies (pinks) in the Kenai River, and we couldn't fish them. It's criminal that you don't harvest the resource and you let it go to waste," said Doug Blossom of Ninilchik, a setnetter for more than 50 years. "Bob Penney has said many a time that he wants commercial fishing gone, completely eliminated. We've always maintained -- like dummies -- that there's room for everybody."
Fox said restrictions on commercial fishing leave few tools for managers to avoid exceeding escapement goals for the Kenai River during a bumper run of sockeyes. Williams said the new escapement goals -- from 600,000 to 1.1 million sockeyes, depending on the projected strength of the Kenai River run -- are too big and threaten to overcrowd rearing lakes and diminish future runs.
Penney said loading the river with pinks has produced the fattest trout he has ever seen. Sport fishers also sacrificed for cohos, he said.
"Everybody suffered, but there's more escapement, and that's what it's all about," he said. "The Mat-Su Borough failed to achieve minimum escapement of silvers for years because they hammered that part of the run. Restrictions the Board of Fisheries put in place has changed that, so they're making biological escapement."
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