Dipnet fishermen and commercial fishermen clog the mouth of the Kasilof River with nets Thursday.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
Frustrated personal-use and sportfishermen are complaining over a commercial fishery they say has choked off noncommercial fishing opportunities in the Kasilof River.
The Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, also known as the terminal fishery, is a commercial fishing zone located in and around the mouth of the river used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game when the department expects the Kasilof sockeye run to exceed escapement goals.
Fish and Game has opened the fishery more in 2006 than in any year since its creation in 1985. So far this season, it has been open for more than 20 days from anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours, compared to 11 days in 2005.
Early last week, the openings crammed more than 300 commercial boats into a 2-mile wide area where sockeye enter the Kasilof River.
Personal-use and sportfishermen complain that the fishery mops up most of the river’s fish, leaving few for noncommercial fishermen.
The few that do escape commercial nets are small, said Ryan Burard, a dipnetter who fished the Kasilof Thursday night.
“See how small this fish is?” he said, holding up a sockeye about the length of his forearm.
“The Kasilof fish are smaller (than Kenai), but these are like the ones that are getting through their nets,” he said, gesturing to the commercial boats off shore. “That’s why every fish you see here is rarely bigger than this one. These are small, small.”
Although terminal fishing can be very good for the handful of commercial fishermen who manage to secure a strategic location, most are still picking unseasonably low catches from their nets and would prefer to fish traditional areas and leave the chaos of the terminal fishery behind, said Paul Shadura, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.
“Right now it’s like a gold rush atmosphere there,” Shadura said.
But for Upper Cook Inlet commercial sockeye fishermen, the terminal fishery is the only game in town.
About a week ago, Fish and Game closed traditional fishery areas throughout the upper inlet to allow this year’s weak run of Kenai River sockeye to pass through and escape into the Kenai River to spawn.
Commercial fishermen are not the only ones who have been limited. Personal-use fishing has closed on the Kenai, leaving the Kasilof the only option for dipnetters on the Kenai Peninsula. Sockeye sportfishing also is closed on most of the Kenai River.
On the other hand, Fish and Game has tried to ramp up fishing for Kasilof sockeye, a run that could exceed the upper end of the department’s in river escapement goal of 150,000 to 300,000, if not watched carefully, said Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game.
By the end of Thursday, the Kasilof sockeye counter already had recorded nearly 200,000.
Fish and Game are using the terminal fishery to prevent the Kasilof run from eclipsing escapement goals while catching as few Kenai sockeye as possible, said Jeff Fox, a Fish and Game management biologist.
“There are some Kenai fish being caught,” Fox said. “(But) this is the most conservative thing we have in the box of tricks.”
At 11 p.m. Friday, the terminal fishery was closed until further notice, but Shields said there is a fairly good chance it will be opened again before the season is over.
If winds move a sudden and large push of sockeye into the river, for example, Fish and Game would need to open the terminal fishery to keep the Kasilof sockeye numbers within the goal range, a range the department has worked hard to ensure the run will not exceed, Shields said.
Even when the terminal fishery is in place, there are still opportunities to catch fish, Fox said.
“There are still a reasonable number of fish coming through,” he said. “The thing is, people have to be pretty savvy to know when to go. If you go at night when the drift fleet closes there’s a fair shot of fish coming through.”
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