Hotly contested Cook Inlet board meeting looms

  • Anglers cast on the Kenai River on July 20, 2016, near Soldotna. Which groups get how many fish will be the subject of some 171 proposals to be taken up by the Board of Fisheries at its Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage coming up in February. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl)
  • Sockeye salmon fall onto the sorting belt at Pacific Star Seafoods on July 21, 2016 in Kenai. Commercial fishermen are seeking to ease some recent restrictions on their harvest time at the upcoming Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage beginning Feb. 7. (Photo/ Elizabeth Earl)

In less than a month, fisheries stakeholders from all over the Cook Inlet basin will get together to hash out how salmon should be split up in some of the most populated, heavily-fished streams and marine waters of the state.

The Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting is the longest meeting in the Board of Fisheries’ regular cycle, lasting about two full weeks and addressing issues ranging from hook size in certain streams to management plan shifts for entire fisheries. They’re also notoriously contentious, with commercial and sport fisheries interests typically butting heads over how salmon are allocated and fishing time is provided.

The Board of Fisheries will meet on Upper Cook Inlet proposals in Anchorage from Feb. 7-19 at the Egan Center. On-time public comments can be submitted through Jan. 23.

The board will consider 171 different proposals related to commercial, personal use, sport and subsistence fisheries across the basin. Of those, 68 are directly related to sport or personal-use fisheries; 55 are directly related to commercial fishery management; a variety of others affect both, including changes to management plans or commercial fishery time and area regulations.

Sportfisheries

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, is one of the most frequent visitors to board meetings. The organization, which advocates for salmon-related conservation projects on the western Kenai Peninsula and for policies affecting sportfisheries in Southcentral, submitted a number of proposals for the board, ranging from proposing increased sockeye salmon escapement goal numbers to a priority being established for fisheries that provide access for Alaskans to harvest salmon for personal and family consumption.

After longtime executive director Ricky Gease stepped down to take over leadership at the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Ben Mohr took over the Soldotna-based organization last March.

The group’s proposals circulate around four main themes, he said: increasing access to personal-use fisheries in the Mat-Su Valley, strengthening the corridors to pass more fish north through Cook Inlet, increasing salmon passage into the freshwater systems, and strengthening the work of conservation across all user groups.

Some of the group’s proposals overlap in purpose, Mohr said, as they aim at conservation and increasing access for anglers. One of the group’s proposals, No. 78, would set up a prioritization framework for the board to consider when making decisions, putting access to “the importance of each fishery to providing residents the opportunity to harvest fish for personal and family consumption” at the top.

That lines up with the organization’s thematic goals, but isn’t the only one related to it, he said.

“If you’ve got people that are putting in multiple proposals to the Board of Fish, they’re usually tied together,” he said.

The personal-use priority proposal is a renewed version of a proposal the group supported during the Board of Fisheries’ statewide meeting this past March. The board shot the prioritization system down then, citing a lack of support from users. Mohr pointed out that the language of Proposal 78 does not specifically reference personal-use net fisheries, as Alaskans often use rod-and-reel fisheries to fill their freezers, too.

That connects to another of the group’s proposals, No. 88, which would increase sockeye salmon in-river goal ranges, with varying levels based on the run strength. In the past, as more fish have returned to the river, the limiting factor has not been level of participation, Mohr said, it’s been access and bag limits. He pointed to the Russian River sportfishery, which boomed this summer and was limited by access along the Sterling Highway and parking.

Several other proposals related to the sockeye salmon management plan make similar assertions, expressing frustration that commercial fishermen are allocated the majority of sockeye in Cook Inlet. Proposals 89, 90 and 96 ask for higher in-river sockeye salmon goal ranges and fewer commercial fishing hours available, and Proposal 94 asks for reduced commercial fishing hours in the Upper Subdistrict setnet fishery.

Commercial fisheries

Multiple sportfish-related proposals related to king salmon seek to pair closures in the Kenai River with closures in the commercial fisheries. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the board passed a set of regulations that restricted commercial fisheries based on whether the in-river fisheries were allowed to retain, used bait or not fish for king salmon at all.

In 2017, the board trimmed back some of those restrictions on hours of additional fishing allowed after the setnet fleet complained that they were too restrictive; multiple proposals now seek to strengthen those paired restrictions again. Multiple others seek to scale them back, asserting that they are unfair burdens on the commercial fleet and strangle their ability to operate under their permits.

Like many other Upper Cook Inlet meetings, the proposals for the upcoming one are back-and-forth. For nearly every change proposed to increase restrictions on commercial fisheries, there is a competing proposal from commercial fisheries to loosen existing restrictions, tighten restrictions on sportfisheries or strike a compromise between them.

A number of proposals submitted by setnet fishermen would modify the paired restrictions or allow setnet fishing in some areas while others are restricted during king salmon restrictions on the Kenai River.

The KRSA proposal would establish an Optimum Escapement Goal, or OEG, separate from the existing goals, for late-run kings and reduce the number of hours available to setnets when king salmon fisheries are less than fully prosecuted, with tiers depending on the level of restriction.

Mohr said the goal is to spread the burden of conservation of king salmon, which have been struggling on the Kenai River for more than a decade, across all user groups.

A separate proposal, No. 195, would change the effective date of a rule for commercial fishermen known as the “1 percent rule” from Aug. 7 to July 31 and increase the percentage to 2 percent. Essentially, if the proposal passes, after July 31, the commercial fishery in the Upper Subdistrict would close if any single period’s catch was less than 2 percent of the season’s total catch was taken for two consecutive periods. The goal is to limit take of coho salmon bound for the Kenai River, according to the proposal document.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, a trade association representing drift gillnet fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, submitted Proposal 187 to eliminate the 1 percent rule on the drift fleet entirely.

UCIDA President David Martin said the proposal is based on the fleet’s longtime belief that the 1 percent rule is unscientific and unfairly closes the fleet early, while there are still pink, chum and silver salmon available to be harvested in the inlet.

It’s difficult for the fleet to deal with, even if there are plenty of salmon coming in, in part because participation drops off in August, he said.

“It has no place in the management of the fisheries for harvesting the surplus and abundance,” he said. “I could be the only “one out there fishing and I could load my boat up, but if it’s not 1 percent, that’d be it.

Similarly, UCIDA submitted a Proposal 102 to decrease the late-run sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai River. The group has long asserted that the escapement goals are too high and set to allocate more fish to the sportfishery, resulting in poorer returns due to too many fish being allowed to return to the Kenai River system.

Proposal 102 would require the department to manage to the lower end of the escapement goal — which would be set at 700,000 fish — in years immediately following years when the estimated return exceeds 1.03 million spawners in the Kenai River.

A number of the proposals for the commercial drift gillnet fishery, such as proposals 123 and 126, seek to increase restrictions on fishing area to promote passage of salmon to the Susitna River and other northern Cook Inlet systems. Contrasting them, UCIDA submitted two proposals, Nos. 134 and 135, to add additional fishing periods for the drifters in Area 1, near the center of the Inlet, during the season.

Martin said the managers have been meeting escapement goals for sockeye in the Susitna system, and that the main stock in trouble in the Valley — king salmon — isn’t under pressure by the drift fleet.

Mohr said KRSA was interested in improving access to fisheries there, as businesses have shuttered and anglers have seen season after season of closures in recent years due to a lack of salmon passage into the valley streams.

“I think we’ve made some good progress on passing more fish north,” he said. “(Mat-Su residents) are longing for more fish up there.”

Martin said he hoped the board members would consider scientific research when making allocative decisions at the upcoming meeting.

“I’m hoping they use the most reliable scientific data that’s available and make decisions based on abundance so we can harvest the surplus and make it a viable fishery for everybody,” he said.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/15/2020 - 9:35am