Commercial fishers in Upper Cook Inlet are seeing a strong return of sockeye salmon, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has responded by granting some increases in fishing time.
According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox, this season is shaping up to be a good one in terms of the numbers of fish caught by commercial fishers. He said that after Thursday's regular fishing opener, the department's preseason harvest prediction for upper Cook Inlet of 2 million already had been met.
"We're going to be over forecast," Fox said.
Thursday's opening was extended by three hours for both set and drift gillnet fishers, and an additional 10-hour period was granted Friday, as well.
However, how far above the forecast the run will finish is still up in the air. Fox said that by early this week, the department will have a much better handle on how many fish are still moving into the inlet.
"By Monday, we'll know where we're going to be at," he said.
He did say additional openings are likely, as escapement numbers on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been extremely strong so far.
Fishers will see more fishing time as the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye in-river escapements continue to swell. As of Friday, the Kenai already had seen 427,466 fish pass its sonar counter, more than half of what the department sets for its minimum escapement for the entire run. And on the Kasilof, 242,909 sockeye had entered the river, already within the department's management goal.
Just how much additional fishing time fishers -- especially Kasilof setnetters -- get has been a tricky issue of late, due to a court case pitting two local fishing groups against the Board of Fisheries.
The board recently changed rules governing Kasilof setnetters. Under the new rules, the department was only allowed to grant 36 hours of emergency periods to Kasilof-area setnetters each week.
Fishers maintained biologists should be allowed to let them harvest surplus fish when the run is stronger than what's needed to achieve the escapement goal.
Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association president Paul Shadura -- himself a setnetter -- said the regulation made no sense. KPFA maintains that management biologists like Fox should be the ones who decide when emergency openings are warranted, not the fish board.
"It's the basis for in-season management in Alaska," Shadura said. "That's their job."
KPFA, along with the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association, earlier this year filed suit in order to modify the regulation. A Kenai judge recently ruled in their favor, meaning Fox essentially can manage the fishery as he sees fit.
The bottom line, Fox said, is commercial fishers should expect to be busy through the completion of the sockeye run.
"There will be additional emergency openings," he said.
Peninsula Clarion reporter Marcus Garner contributed to this story.
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