Board approves new dip net fishery on Susitna River
Mat-Su residents will have another opportunity to dip net salmon in their own backyard starting this summer.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries voted 5-2 on Feb. 13 to approve a personal use dip net fishery on a section of the lower Susitna River for all species other than king salmon at its Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting in Anchorage.
A proposal by the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee to establish the dip net fishery was amended by the board to better align it with the extremely popular July dip net fisheries on the Kenai Peninsula. The fishery approved by the board will be open Wednesdays and Saturdays from July 10 to July 31, which is in line with the Kenai Peninsula dip netting periods. However, those fisheries are open seven days per week under normal regulations.
The Matanuska Valley AC originally pushed for opening the portion of the Susitna to dip netting Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from July 10 to Aug. 15.
“The attempt was to build a fishery that was conservative and still offer a decent amount of opportunity,” said Andy Couch, a Susitna-area guide and Matanuska Valley AC member in testimony to the board.
Mike Wood, a Northern District set netter who chairs the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, said in testimony that he cautiously supports the Susitna dip net fishery because “giving people the opportunity to harvest food from their backyard is very important,” despite the allocation issues and concerns that the newly conceived fishery could become popular to the point of being problematic at times, as has happened with Kenai River dip netting.
“There’s a huge amount to be gained by having a new user voice on the river,” Wood said of the new Susitna fishery.
Department of Fish and Game officials and others said the Susitna will largely avoid the habitat degradation issues that have arisen on the Kenai as the popularity of the dip net fishery there has grown, in part because the Susitna is a very large, glacially turbid and fast river with dramatic water-level fluctuations; the river is constantly changing.
The location of the fishery also will inherently curb its popularity to some degree, as a boat is required to get there. Dip netting will be open on the Susitna in a roughly seven-mile area starting one mile downstream from Susitna Station to the upstream end of Bell Island. The area starts about 20 miles downriver from the nearest boat launch at Deshka Landing in Willow.
The Susitna River dip net fishery will be the second personal use fishery in the region. A dip net fishery targeting sockeye on Fish Creek in Knik Arm is opened by the Department of Fish and Game via emergency order during years of large sockeye returns.
Representatives from the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee said their group was split on the Susitna proposal, with some supporting any way to reduce pressure in the Kenai dip net fishery, which targets sockeye, and commercial fishermen opposed to it because it would add another harvest group to fisheries that are already fully allocated.
Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association President David Martin said the numerous sport fisheries in the massive Susitna drainage already provide for ample harvest opportunity in the region.
He also highlighted previous actions the board took at the meeting to restrict commercial drift fishing in the central portion of Cook Inlet as a means of allowing more sockeye and coho salmon to reach the Northern District of the Inlet and make it into the Susitna as rationale against opening the river to dip netting.
“To put another new fishery on top of (the commercial fishing restrictions) is kind of pouring salt in the wound,” Martin said.
Other supporters of the fishery testified that it is intended to target chum and pink salmon, which generally are not targeted by commercial or sport fishermen in the Inlet and are largely considered plentiful in the Susitna drainage.
Board member John Wood, of Willow, suggested prohibiting retention of sockeye salmon as board members expressed continued concern for Susitna sockeye stocks and urged continued conservative management by Department of Fish and Game officials in prior discussions. He said he does not want to add additional sockeye harvest on the Susitna until weir counts improve. Earlier in the meeting the board removed a “stock of yield concern” designation from Susitna sockeye at the recommendation of the department.
However, other board members and department staff noted that the “bright,” or fresh, chum salmon prevalent in the lower river can be difficult to differentiate from similarly bright sockeye, even to the experienced eye.
Board member John Jensen, of Petersburg, stressed that the board needs to “be really precautionary” when it opens a new fishery, but ultimately voted in favor of it with the season amendments.
Wood and Gerad Godfrey, of Eagle River, voted against the Susitna dip net fishery after the board rejected the sockeye restriction.
“It’s a clean fishery with a selective harvest component,” board chair Reed Morisky of Fairbanks said, noting fish can be released quickly from a dip net.
Board member Israel Payton, of Wasilla, noted that the sport catch of sockeye in the Susitna drainage is about 6,000 fish per year out of an in-river run that is in the hundreds of thousands of fish most years.
“If the department is worried about abundance the fishery will close,” Payton added.
The board also rejected numerous proposed changes to the Kenai dip net fishery.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].