‘Yield’ concern lifted for Susitna sockeye, but tighter rules remain

  • A drift boat is seen moored in the Kenai River in 2019. Drift fishermen will have to stay closer to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to fish under decisions passed by the Board of Fisheries Feb. 11 that lifted a yield concern status for Susitna River sockeye while maintaining restrictions on the fleet in the central part of Cook Inlet during late July and August. (Photo/Nick Berga/Alaska Salmon Alliance)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries decided that Susitna River sockeye salmon have sufficiently rebounded to remove their special status but at the same time does not want to relax potential harvest restrictions.

The board voted unanimously to remove the “stock of yield concern” status from Susitna River sockeye Feb. 11 at the Upper Cook Inlet Finish Meeting in Anchorage. However, board members also stressed to Department of Fish and Game biologists that they do not want to change how the fish are managed.

In fact, the seven-member board subsequently took actions aimed at increasing the volume of sockeye and coho salmon that ultimately make it back to the Susitna River.

The status as a stock of yield concern was placed on Susitna River sockeye in 2008 after the salmon — largely headed to a handful of lake-fed, clear water tributaries — failed to meet the minimum sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, of 90,000 fish in the Yentna River. The Yentna is the major western tributary to the very large Susitna River.

Upper Cook Inlet commercial drift fishermen have long advocated for lifting the status and associated fishing restrictions placed on them because ADFG managers eventually learned through subsequent enumeration studies that the sonar-based methods used to count sockeye on the Yentna were undercounting the fish.

“It’s a gimmick and hopefully the board sets management based on data,” Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association President David Martin testified to the board.

Martin also alleged the status was put on Susitna sockeye just to restrict commercial harvest.

ADFG Commercial Fisheries and Sport Fish Division leaders on Jan. 27 sent a memo to board members recommending that the yield concern designation be discontinued.

At the meeting, managers said the weirs — the most accurate way to count migrating fish — at Judd, Chelatna and Larson lakes showed sockeye stocks in those drainages were mostly achieving their respective minimum escapement objectives in recent years.

Board member Israel Payton of Wasilla, a strong advocate for increasing returns of sockeye and coho to the Susitna, acknowledged the flawed data the designation was based on in explaining his rationale for wanting it removed.

“We do not assess Susitna sockeye stocks very well,” Payton said.

To that end, ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said state budget cuts could push the department to discontinue weir counting at Larson Lake near Talkeetna and Chelatna Lake, which Lake Creek drains into the Yentna.

Vincent-Lang said he’s hopeful the department will find funding partnerships to keep the weirs in operation over the coming years; but he’s also comfortable the systems will continue to meet minimum sockeye escapement goals with conservative management that will continue if the weirs are cut.

“These are tough decisions,” Vincent-Lang said, adding he asked staff to look for ways to cut spending that don’t impact in-season management.

The location of the Susitna drainage weirs at the outlets of headwater lakes does not allow department officials to manage the commercial fisheries targeting the sockeye in-season because the run is largely through Cook Inlet by the time enough fish have reached the weir to make management decisions based on weir-counted escapements.

John Wood, a board member from Willow, said the Susitna drainage is not as productive for sockeye as other large Southcentral rivers for a host of reasons and therefore needs to be managed differently.

ADFG biologists said they generally believe Susitna sockeye stocks are as productive as they can be given warming summer water temperatures and predation from invasive northern pike in area lakes among other issues.

In an attempt to allow more sockeye and coho through Cook Inlet and into the Susitna the board voted 6-1 to restrict the commercial drift fleet to fishing eastern Cook Inlet near the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and farther south near Anchor Point in late July and August.

The drift fishing restriction ostensibly reinstates the central Inlet “salmon corridor” measures enacted by the board in 2014 to pass more sockeye and coho to northern Cook Inlet streams. The commercial fishing restrictions were eased at the board’s 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting.

Board member Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River noted the board recently changed Kodiak commercial salmon fishing management policies to allow more Cook Inlet-bound sockeye to reach the area and said it only makes sense to subsequently structure Inlet management to allow more fish headed for the northern reaches of the inlet to get there.

Reviving the “salmon corridor” policy was proposed by Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission chair and northern district setnetter Mike Wood. Board member John Jensen of Petersburg cast the lone vote against.

UCIDA’s Martin said the action pulls the drift fleet out of its historical fishing grounds in the middle of the Inlet and would ultimately hurt young fishermen trying to get into the industry. He predicted “another disaster” for the commercial fishery.

Payton and other board members acknowledged the strain the Susitna-related decisions would put on Inlet drifters but also noted they take the vast majority of the overall harvest of Susitna sockeye and coho stocks.

“I truly believe putting more fish up there (in the Susitna) will increase everyone’s yield over time,” Payton said, also stressing that the board members don’t enjoy restricting the drifters even more.

“It’s important to have a thriving commercial fishery in the Northern District; it’s important to have a thriving sport fishery in the Northern District,” he said.

The board also voted 4-3 to amend the preamble of the Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan to state that it is meant to “ensure adequate escapement and a harvestable surplus of salmon into the Northern District drainages.”

The changes also direct the department to manage the drift fleet so “all users” have a reasonable opportunity to harvest Kenai River coho and Northern District salmon stocks.

Payton, who pushed for the intent language change, said it should be a way to bring all Northern District user groups — sport, commercial set net and subsistence — together.

Godfrey said it’s an admirable goal to bring users together on issues but added that he doesn’t believe the new wording changes anything substantive. Fritz Johnson, of Dillingham, similarly called the change “superfluous.”

Board chair Reed Morisky said it adds clarity for managers as to how the board wants various salmon stocks allocated.

Martin called the drift fleet-related actions “strictly political” and “void of science or consideration for maximum sustained yield” of inlet salmon.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
02/12/2020 - 9:38am