The last of the upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing fleet came into harbor over the weekend, marking the end of another commercial salmon season. Although the fishery significantly exceeded expectations for the season on several accounts, an abundance of fish still got past commercial gillnets, which is bad news for the Kenai Peninsula's present and future.
Fishers were not pleased with the number of fish that escaped as United Cook Inlet Drifters Association Executive Director Roland Maw, himself a driftnet fisher, stated in a letter he is sending to state leaders in Juneau.
"The commercial salmon harvest in the upper inlet was full of frustration, disappointment and lost economic opportunities," his letter said.
Processors also expressed disappointment with the large escapement numbers.
"A lot more fish should have been harvested," said Deep Creek Packaging president Jeff Berger. "I think the escapement in the Kenai and the Kasilof (rivers) was way too high. We should have used more of those fish for human consumption."
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, of nearly 6 million reds that returned to the inlet, more than 1.5 million fish escaped into the two rivers. That equates to nearly half a million above the high end of the biological escapement goals that were set.
"There really wasn't much reason that we shouldn't have gotten every one of those half million fish," said Paul Dale, president of Kenai fish processing plant Snug Harbor Seafoods.
Fish and Game commercial fishing area biologist Jeff Fox admitted the management plan wasn't able keep pace with the numbers of sockeye coming into the inlet.
"We went over the goals in every system," Fox said. "We tried to follow the plans as best we could, and in doing so, we had a lot of fish escape into the river. You never know what we have until they're right on us."
The management plan for the Kenai River primarily provides commercial fishers with enough of a harvest for economic survival, according to state statutes. It calls for restrictions to be set based on initial forecasts to allow a certain number of fish to escape into the rivers to spawning beds.
During the season, if biologists' evaluations reflect a change in the number of reds returning, they will adjust the limitation of days accordingly, and fishers can get additional time to fish.
Although this year's commercial harvest for the inlet slightly outperformed initial forecasts by 1 million fish, showing a 3.4-million haul, Maw said underutilization of the sockeye return cost the peninsula dearly, starting with driftnetters.
"This year we had a total sockeye return of about 6 million fish and the drift fleet harvested 1.5 million fish," he said. "And that is just barely more than we harvested last year on a 4.3-million run.
"That overescapement cost every drift boat about $4,000 out of their income."
At about six pounds per fish and 65 cents per pound, he determined that all of the nearly 800,000 additional reds that escaped into the entire inlet river system calculated to about $3 million. Historically, driftnet fishers took about 56 percent of the harvest, so he concluded that an equal amount of the payout would have been divided evenly among the 410 driftnetters who fished this year.
Attached to Maw's letter is a table that outlines how overescapement took a chunk out of more than just the peninsula fishing industry's pockets. (See table, this page.) His figures spelled out the losses to both drift- and setnet fishers, as well as money the processors, the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough would not see from lost tax dollars.
"The long and the short of it is lost economic opportunity of about $8.5 million," Maw said.
At Wednesday's Kenai Cham-ber of Commerce luncheon, Dale pointed to the extensive work the inlet salmon fishers have put into improving the quality of the fish to catch better prices in a market that must compete with farmed salmon.
"Because of the success and community support for the Kenai Wild brand and our access to the road system, we have advantages over other salmon fisheries in the state," he said. "If the U.S. and Canada become a marketable home for wild fish, the peninsula will be in a good position."
But Maw expressed exasperation with what he saw as a flaw in management. He said a management decision from Fish and Game caused fishers to miss the biggest glut of fish entering the Kenai and Kasilof rivers on the weekend of July 19.
"I find it really ironic that this year we have the fish, the fishermen are ready and the processors are ready, we have all the advantages Paul is talking about, and the governor gave us $150 million, and we let the fish just swim on by," he said.
Over that weekend, more than 100,000 fish entered the Kenai River, and the department met the lower levels of their escapement goals for the river.
"The drifters had one good day," Fox said. "The rest were kind of mediocre. It appears the fish weren't really schooling that well and a lot of them went deeper than normal and went under nets."
On most emergency openings, drifters often are restricted to fishing in the corridor, an invisible box three miles off the east side of the inlet that stretches from just north of Anchor Point to Kasilof. On July 25, however, drifters were given an opening with full range of the inlet for 12 hours.
Fox said about 160,000 fish were taken that day, both on the beaches and in the inlet.
"Looking back, would we had done things differently? Yes," he said. "But we would contend that we did the best we could."
But Cook Inlet Aquaculture Center Executive Director Gary Fandrei said the large escapements could have an impact on future returns. He said a combination of huge numbers entering spawning streams, this year's warm weather and low water levels could hurt returns four to five years down the road.
"There's an optimum escapement," Fandrei said. "When you go beyond that, there's not enough food out there, and there's a crash in the population."
Fox indicated that preliminary fry counts in Skilak Lake point to a 2004 return as large as this year.
"We won't have a forecast yet, but the potential is definitely there for next year's run to equal this year's or more," he said.
Fandrei said with last year's escapement, that could push the spawning system beyond its limits, which will have a bad effect in four years.
"On any given year, a system may be able to handle that, but when you have several years in a row of large escapements, it's going to be a negative response," he said. "I think we have had some high escapements, and it is definitely something to be worried about."
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