Inlet fisherman say fish closures unnecessary

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

KENAI (AP) Cook Inlet commercial fishermen say state Fish and Game officials needlessly prevented them from harvesting thousands of sockeye salmon this summer.

They say that cost fishermen and the community millions of dollars and may burden streams with too many spawning salmon.

''The commercial salmon harvest in the upper inlet was full of frustration, disappointment and lost economic opportunities,'' wrote Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association, in a letter of complaint to state leaders.

A state Department of Fish and Game biologist Jeff Fox acknowledged that the department's plan for managing the fishery didn't keep pace with a larger-than-expected sockeye run.

''We tried to follow the plans as best we could, and in doing so, we had a lot of fish escape into the river,'' Fox said. ''You never know what we have until they're right on us.''

''Looking back, would we had done things differently? Yes,'' Fox said. ''But we would contend that we did the best we could.''

According to Fish and Game, of nearly 6 million sockeye that returned to the inlet, more than 1.5 million escaped into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. That is nearly half a million above the department's high-end biological goals for those rivers.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Center Executive Director Gary Fandrey said the large numbers of fish allowed to enter the rivers, combined with low water levels, could hurt future returns.

''There's an optimum escapement,'' Fandrey said. ''When you go beyond that, there's not enough food out there, and there's a crash in the population.''

The management plan for the Kenai River calls for fishing restrictions to be based on initial forecasts to allow a certain number of fish to escape into the rivers and spawn.

During the season, if biologists' evaluations reflect a change in the number of fish returning, they can adjust the restrictions, allowing more fishing time.

Maw said Fish and Game's overly conservative management of the sockeye run cost the peninsula dearly.

Maw produced a table outlining losses to both driftnet and setnet fishermen, 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.

Processors also expressed disappointment with the large numbers of fish that escaped fishermen's nets.

''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.''

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