While the Chinitna Bay chum fishery opened to driftnet fishing Thursday, most driftnetters have already thrown in the towel on a fishing season they say is among their worst.
So far this year commercial fishermen have harvested about 2 million fish in Upper Cook Inlet. While driftnet fishermen can still harvest in areas on the west side of the inlet, including Chinitna Bay, the most productive driftnet harvest opportunities ended Aug. 10 with the fishing closures in east Cook Inlet, said Jeff Fox, Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist. And for setnet fishermen, all Upper Cook Inlet fishing ended Aug. 9.
“It’s not as disastrous as it was, but it’s still pretty disastrous,” said United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Steve Tvenstrup referring to this year’s commercial fishery.
The late run of Kenai River sockeye has exceeded Fish and Game’s optimal escapement goal of 500,000 to 1 million fish, but because Board of Fish management plans ended eastern Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing in early August, commercial fishermen missed out on the bulk of this year’s unusually late run of Kenai sockeye.
Normally only two to 25 percent of late-run Kenai sockeye arrive in August. This year, however, more than 50 percent of the run arrived in August, Fox said.
“That’s really atypical,” Fox said. “Last time I looked, about 700,000 fish had come in since Aug. 1.”
Had commercial fishermen been allowed to continue to harvest on the east side of the inlet until now, some might have been able to make up for at least some of the loses suffered earlier in the season, Tvenstrup said.
“The drift fleet could’ve capitalized on the late return August tenth until now if we had been open out in front of the Kenai River,” Tvenstrup said.
While local Fish and Game managers might not necessarily disagree, the decision to extend or not extend the season is out of their hands.
“That’s a decision made in Juneau, as to whether we extend the season,” Fox said. “And they chose not to.”
But it can be tricky to balance adherence to management plans with managing to meet escapement goals, Fox said.
“Until someone comes up with a plan that will do both, this is what we’re left with,” he said.
In the meantime, the Kenai sockeye run continues to exceed the escapement goal, setnet fishermen have packed away their nets and driftnetters are left with a fishery that will do little to compensate for loses suffered early in the season.
Few driftnetters are willing to burn the $200 to $250 in fuel need to reach mediocre fish runs on the west side of the inlet, Tvenstrup said.
Of the approximately 400 Upper Cook Inlet driftnetters that made deliveries this summer, about 10 made deliveries Monday, he said.
Now most are just counting their loses.
“This year definitely goes down as one of my poorest years and I think that can relate to all drifters,” he said.
Of the approximately 2 million commercially harvested fish this season, 700,000 were caught in the terminal fishery, where fishermen were crammed into close quarters and a handful caught the bulk of the fish.
“People who fished the terminal area had anywhere from a miserable to OK season,” Fox said. “And Kasilof set gillnet did OK and by and large nobody had that good of a season.”
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