Cook Inlet fishermen blame rigid management for season losses

  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten listens to Scott Kelley of the Commercial Fisheries Division during a Board of Fisheries meeting July 17 in Anchorage. Cotten and Gov. Bill Walker heard from frustrated commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet about management plans they say are too inflexible and resulted in large foregone harvest this year after a dismal sockeye season. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

KENAI — Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen feel that mandated closures played a part in them missing the boat on many of the salmon they could have harvested this season.

At a meeting in Kenai on Sept. 28, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen grilled Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten and Gov. Bill Walker with questions about regulation of the fishery and policy changes to support it in the future.

Some of the concern is about inflexible management. A number of the questions Cotten fielded were about why Kasilof area setnetters were closed, allowing sockeye to go past for the sake of the Kenai River escapement, while the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery remained open.

By the end of the season, the Kasilof River sockeye escapement goal had been exceeded, with the Kenai in the middle of its goal range.

Toward the end of the season, drift gillnet fishermen also target the silver and chum salmon on the west side of the Inlet. Georgie Heverly, who moderated the discussion, asked about the delay in openings on the west side of Cook Inlet in August, when chum and silver salmon were returning.

“Specifically for the drift fleet, we sat around for weeks waiting for Chinitna to open, waiting for an aerial survey,” she said. “It was really unfortunate — a lot of us, the younger generation who don’t own a boat, we have boat payments. We hang on to scrape up what we can from that silver run in August, and that was a huge financial burden for us, to sit around for three weeks, waiting for (ADFG) to get data on Chinitna.”

Cotten said he hadn’t heard of that issue particularly, but said weather and flight scheduling can delay aerial surveys. The department relies on aerial surveys when there are no weirs or sonars on stream systems but they need to estimate run sizes for a fishery.

In this case, the fishermen said that had the fishery opened earlier, they could have salvaged their season on the silvers and chums after a dismal sockeye run, but they missed them as they passed up the Inlet.

That resulted in a great catch for the setnetters in the northern district, said Dave Martin, a longtime drift fisherman in Upper Cook Inlet. The indices at the test fishery in Anchor Point showed high numbers of silver salmon, which are not enumerated by sonar or weir in any Kenai Peninsula stream system, were high this year, but the drift fishermen were closed and missed them, he said.

“We could’ve salvaged a halfway decent season on the other species, the chums, the pinks and the silvers, and then it came out in the middle of August that the silvers in the test fishery were the largest we’ve ever had,” he said. “That’s the first we heard about it.”

Those closures required under the management plan have long been a sticking point for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who say the lack of flexibility makes the fishery ineffective and allows too many fish to escape into the stream systems.

Martin said the fishery managers need to have the flexibility to go outside the management plans to prosecute an effective fishery. Dates play a major role in the management, and this year, when more than half the Kenai River sockeye run arrived in August — the first time in Fish and Game’s records — much of the fleet was shifted away from the Kenai or out of the water by Aug. 15 by regulation, with more sockeye still coming in.

Cotten said the department has some flexibility to go outside the plans but cannot completely bypass them. He said in answer to concerns about the scientific accuracy of established escapement goals, the department would make a “very, very” serious effort to have public meetings on escapement goals in the Cook Inlet.

“The problem is it’s very difficult to just completely ignore the Board of Fisheries,” he said. “I find it very, very difficult to ignore the management plans they’ve laid out.”

Walker said he’s made a point not to be involved in fisheries management decisions during his administration, deferring to Cotten and ADFG.

“I have absolutely stayed to my word, I don’t tell them how to run the department,” he said. “I just don’t have those credentials.”

Walker, who is up for reelection in November, recently hired Ephraim Frohlich as a fisheries advisor in his office. He added that he hopes the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force he appointed, intended to bring together user groups from around Cook Inlet to discuss the allocation and issues facing Cook Inlet fisheries.

Early in the process, saying the task force was aimless, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association withdrew from the process, though other stakeholder groups have stayed involved. The task force’s first meeting, pending appointment of members, is scheduled for Oct. 12 in Anchorage.

“We have been meeting about this a lot, and we have been talking about it a lot,” he said. “I’m really hopeful that what we’re trying to do on this task force, something is going to come of that.”

Walker has found controversy in his board nominations as well. In 2015 he told former chair Karl Johnstone, who represented recreational fishermen on the board, that he would not be replaced and when Johnstone resigned in response Walker named UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw to replace him. That nomination was scuttled when Maw faced charges for applying for resident hunting and fishing privileges in both Montana and Alaska as well as illegally receiving Permanent Fund dividends.

KRSA opposed Kenai area biologist Robert Ruffner, Walker’s next choice, and he was narrowly defeated in the Legislature before Walker nominated him again the following year and he was approved.

Encouraging young fishermen

Part of the meeting’s tone was also about how to encourage young fishermen to enter and stay in the Cook Inlet fishery. But with increasing cost, relatively low earnings and unpredictable openings, Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are concerned about the future of the fishery with fewer young people attracted to making a career of it.

In 2017, the average Cook Inlet drift gillnet permit holder brought home just about $28,000, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That’s about two-thirds of the average permit price that year of $42,400.

Over the past three decades, average gross earnings for the drift fleet have fluctuated wildly from year to year — from a high of more than $133,000 in 1988 to a low of $7,947 in 2001 — and 2017 is far from the lowest amount they’ve earned in a season.

The east side set gillnet fishery is a little better off, where the average permit holder earned $23,991 in 2017, about $8,000 more than the 2017 permit value of $15,600.

Like the drifters, their average earnings per season fluctuate, varying from a high of $91,099 in 1989 to a low of $5,551 in 2012, according to the CFEC.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/03/2018 - 10:35am

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