They’re not always counted numerically, but coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet are highly sought after by sport fishermen and commercial fishermen alike — and, naturally, lead to disagreements over who gets to harvest them and when.
Though the most recent Board of Fisheries meeting was largely focused on the regulations on sockeye and king salmon fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet, concerns about coho fishing pulled the strings on some of the regulations, particularly for set gillnet fishermen on the east side of Cook Inlet.
In particular, changes to the one percent rule — a rule established for the commercial fisheries in the area, largely designed to minimize commercial harvest of coho salmon — could cost commercial fishermen more time in the August each season.
The board approved moving the 1 percent rule date back to July 31 on a 4-3 vote, with members John Jensen of Petersburg, Fritz Johnson of Dillingham and Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River voting against the change.
Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, aren’t as numerous in Cook Inlet as sockeye or pink salmon and aren’t as high-value as kings, but they’re still a highly prized species. In the commercial fishery, they were worth about $1.02 per pound last season, a little less than half as much as sockeye.
In 2019, commercial fishermen across the area harvested about 164,859 coho salmon, with a little more than half landed via the drift gillnet fleet, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual management report.
Silver salmon are worth big money in the sport fisheries around the Cook Inlet basin, too, with guides marketing trips from late July through September based on silvers. When the Kenai River king salmon run closes for sportfishing at the end of July, anglers turn most of their attention to silvers.
The board rejected proposals to increase the Kenai daily sport bag limit of two coho in August to three fish. Anglers are allowed to harvest three Kenai coho per day starting Sept. 1.
ADFG staff in past meetings have said they consider coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet to be fully allocated, meaning that they in order to increase harvest for one group without damaging the population, the allocation for another group would have to be reduced.
However, there are a number of data gaps that made the board’s decisions on how to move coho around difficult. For one, there is no regular enumeration project on the Kenai River counting silver salmon — the last comprehensive population estimate ADFG has is from 2004.
As part of an overall attempt to move more silver salmon toward in-river users, the board members passed a proposal to move the effective date of the 1 percent rule for East Side setnets back from Aug. 7 to July 31. Next season, if the setnet fleet collectively catches less than 1 percent of its total season harvest of sockeye salmon in two consecutive periods after July 31, the fishery will automatically close prior to its normal closing date of Aug. 15.
“Everyone is worried about overexploiting the coho because we don’t know (enough),” said board member Israel Payton during the deliberation process in Anchorage. “ I was comfortable leaving it as it was a few years ago … I thought it was appropriate. I think the in-river users think two fish is appropriate, and the in-river users think the one percent rule should be back to the July 31 date.”
The 1 percent rule went into effect after the 2014 board meeting, and the effective date moved from July 31 to Aug. 7 after the 2017 meeting. Payton, who voted against moving the date at the 2017 meeting, said he thought the board made the wrong decision at that time to move the date back to Aug. 7, especially as the board also voted against increasing the bag limit for inriver users.
Setnetters objected, saying it would unfairly truncate their opportunity to harvest sockeye salmon. Sockeye runs on the Kenai have been increasingly arriving in August—in 2018, for the first time on record, more than half the run arrived after Aug. 1. The fleet also shrinks in August, as more people begin pulling nets out of the water and fewer people are fishing. The rule is evaluated based on the entire fleet, and so the one percent rule makes it a challenge for the whole fleet to keep up with the catch.
Gary Hollier, a longtime East Side setnetter, told the board the fleet’s harvest of Kenai-bound coho salmon is relatively minimal. Genetics data provided by the department estimated the East Side setnet harvest of Kenai-bound coho at about 5,400 fish last year, said Pat Shields, the commercial fisheries management coordinator for Upper and Lower Cook Inlet.
The total yearly Cook Inlet-wide coho harvest has declined by about 56 percent, or roughly 150,000 fish per year since 1999 compared to historical averages, according to department figures. Comparatively, the Kenai River sport coho harvest has remained roughly flat over that time. Historical data indicate the Kenai coho run is about 150,000 fish.
“(The commercial coho harvest) is already minimized,” Hollier said. “There’s no reason to change this. If anything, the minimize date… was Aug. 15. That’s the minimize date.”
Shields said the 1 percent rule was not used since being moved back to Aug. 7 in 2017, but other restrictions were placed on the setnet fishery in recent years because of low king and sockeye returns.
It was used periodically in years when it took effect July 31, according to Shields.
Kevin Delaney, a former ADFG sportfisheries biologist and consultant with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, pointed to another proposal for the board to increase the bag limit of coho to three from the current two. In 2017, the board declined to do so, citing concerns about harvest rates, but still moved back the effective date for the 1 percent rule. Coho are worth more to the sportfishery than the commercial fishery, he said, especially with the decline in king salmon availability across Alaska.
“We stand ready to present reams of economic data that would reflect and inform the board and the public on the value of coho salmon for sportfishing in Upper Cook Inlet,” Delaney said. “That value has gone up exponentially because of the low abundance of king salmon we have. We’ve seen a real decline in the abundance of king salmon … what’s that done is it’s pushed a lot of the effort toward sockeye and coho salmon.”
What the new rule is likely to cost setnetters, though, is sockeye. ADFG was neutral on the proposal but had concerns about the effect on management for escapement goals, said Alyssa Frothingham, the assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet.
“The department has concerns, however, with restrictions that might impair our ability to meet sockeye salmon escapement objectives in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers,” she told the board.
Board member Fritz Johnson said that variability in salmon runs could end up unfairly restricting setnetters from harvesting sockeye.
“In (Bristol Bay), fish don’t arrive where they’re headed in a steady stream,” he said. “The changes that can take place from a day or a tide can be significant, and under those circumstances, there can be a lot of lost opportunity if we enact this rule too early. I don’t think it’s right that the commercial fishery take a hit on this and lose opportunity.”
The board ultimately voted to pass the proposal moving the date to July 31, taking no action on other 1 percent rule proposals based on it. Commercial fishermen had proposed eliminating it entirely, while other proposals sought to expand it to 2 or 3 percent, largely based on concerns for coho salmon harvest opportunities.