Commercial fishers were irate Tuesday after the Board of Fisheries unanimously rejected a plea to allow commercial fishing for pink and chum salmon following this year's dismal sockeye run.
"They're worried about us harvesting a few cohos mixed in with these pinks," setnetter Jeff Beaudoin told the small crowd that had assembled in Soldotna to hear the board's deliberations by teleconference. "But it's a double standard."
Last winter, he said, the board changed the eastern Cook Inlet setnet closure from Aug. 15 to Aug. 7 because board members worried setnetters would take 1,500 or 2,000 cohos. But there will be 35,000 to 100,000 cohos available to anglers in the river, he said, his voice rising.
Weigh that against setnetters' lost opportunity to harvest the 4 million pink salmon available between Aug. 7 and Aug. 15, he shouted.
"It's not only ironic, it's, it's damn well criminal," he said. "I mean, we're hurting here, guys. This is disaster. You've taken away our reasonable opportunity."
The sockeye harvest, which generally provides the bulk of fishers' income, was about 1.3 million this year, compared to an average since 1975 of nearly 3.5 million. Combine that with low prices for fish and high prices for fuel.
According to information from Jeff Fox, area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, upper inlet fishers earned just $8.2 million from this year's fishery.
That makes this the worst year since 1960, when fishers earned $8.17 million in 1999 dollars.
Rep. Gail Phillips, who asked Gov. Tony Knowles' Disaster Policy Cabinet to investigate the situation, estimated that 80 percent of upper inlet fishers failed even to make operating expenses.
Recent rule changes closed the driftnet fishery Aug. 9 and the east side setnet fishery Aug. 7. That put fishers on the beach when the bumper pink run arrived. Commercial fishers asked the Department of Fish and Game on Aug. 9 to reopen commercial fishing for pinks and chums by emergency order, but state biologists declined.
On Friday, driftnetter Steve Tvenstrup and setnetter Paul Shadura petitioned the board to eliminate the Aug. 7 and Aug. 9 closures and allow fishing for pink and chum salmon.
When the board met by teleconference Tuesday, it had to decide whether the petition met criteria for an emergency, and if so, what action to take. Regulations define an emergency as an unforeseen event that threatens a fish or game resource, or an unforeseen situation where a biologically allowable harvest would be precluded by a delay in regulatory action and the resource would be unavailable in the future.
State biologists told the board they have few actual counts of pinks, chums or cohos, but what information exists suggests all three are returning in abundance. By Aug. 20, more than 1.2 million pinks had passed the Deshka River weir in the Susitna Valley, versus a season total of 542,000 in 1998. Given the number of pink salmon streams, they guessed the total run likely is 10 million to 15 million pinks.
Based on that, James Brady, regional supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries, guessed commercial fishers in the inlet would likely take less than 3 percent of the returning pinks. Fisheries elsewhere often yield a 50 to 60 percent commercial harvest of returning pinks.
Biologists said chum and coho runs also appear strong, but Fox said the late run of Kenai River cohos has not yet arrived.
Board member Virgil Umphenour noted that before the restrictions on commercial fishers, 98 percent or more of the commercial pink and chum catch came in before Aug. 22, while just two-thirds or three-quarters of the commercial coho catch came by that date.
A commercial fishery now would target cohos, he said.
Until the recent restrictions, Fox said, east side setnetters accounted for just 12 percent of the early-run coho harvest and drift boats for just 6 percent. Anglers in the river accounted for the lion's share, taking 80 percent of the early run coho harvest and 100 percent of the late-run harvest.
Board member Ed Dersham said the peak of the pink run has already passed, and the benefit of a commercial fishery would not justify the risk to the late run of Kenai River cohos, whose strength is not yet known. The board was unanimous in deciding that no emergency exists.
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