The Alaska Board of Fisheries on Feb. 14 approved a new escapement goal aimed at getting more of the once iconic late-run king salmon into the Kenai River, but the move amounts to another blow to many Kenai Peninsula commercial fishermen targeting sockeye salmon also returning to area rivers.
After numerous amendments to the proposal and hours of discussions with stakeholders and Department of Fish and Game managers, the board voted 5-2 in favor of managing the late-run Kenai kings with an optimum escapement goal, or OEG, of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish at its Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting in Anchorage.
In 2017, department officials set a sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, of 13,500 to 27,000 large late-run Kenai kings and the board made several corresponding changes to in-river sport fishing regulations.
The department sets — and the board approves — biological and sustainable escapement goals based on scientific data for salmon stocks across the state; the board can then set optimum escapement or in-river goals at higher levels.
Such larger goals set by the board often account for in-river harvest or other allocative considerations.
The department managed to an escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 late-run Kenai kings of all sizes from 2013 through 2016 before switching to the slightly lower range goal for large fish — kings more than 34 inches long — in 2017.
The large fish goal was implemented in part to focus escapement on bigger fish that are productive spawners. It also aids department managers in achieving a more accurate escapement census for Kenai kings, which are counted by sonar in the lower river. (All numbers that follow referring either to run size or harvest are in terms of large Kenai king salmon, as estimated by ADFG)
The late-run kings return to the Kenai in July and early August when sockeye, pink and coho salmon are also in the river, so counting only large kings allows managers to better enumerate kings from sonar images including multiple species of similar- sized salmon.
The total return of late-run Kenai kings before harvest has been on a general downward trend since peaking at more than 91,000 kings in 2004. In 2019, the total late run of Kenai kings was just 12,780 fish, which was the smallest run in more than 20 years according to Department of Fish and Game data.
The restrictions on all fishing just to achieve that number for Kenai kings led in part to another disappointing commercial season, with only 2.1 million salmon landed, or about 37 percent less than the recent 10-year average. That brought in a total of about $18 million in ex-vessel value, which is about 40 percent less than the recent 10-year average in the fishery, according to an ADFG season summary released Nov. 25, 2019.
Both the Kasilof River and Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded in part because of restrictions on commercial fishermen due to the weak Kenai River late-run king salmon numbers.
The average size of the Kenai king — historically renowned for being the largest king salmon on Earth — has been in decline for years as well.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, commonly known as KRSA, submitted the proposal to establish the OEG for late-run Kenai kings.
Board members who voted for the new, higher OEG said getting more fish into the river is one of the most fundamental ways they can help rebuild the stock.
Board chair Reed Morisky of Fairbanks said the board is not going to let the late-run Kenai kings disappear under his leadership.
“We’d be irresponsible not setting (the OEG) there for these kings,” said Israel Payton, a board member from Wasilla.
Payton acknowledged the 15,000 to 30,000 large fish OEG at times will have implications on commercial sockeye fisheries, but also stressed the “paired restrictions” implemented to limit fishing time and gear in the East Side setnet fishery when managers restrict the in-river sport fishery only take effect during years of low king returns.
Märit Carlson-Van Dort concurred with Payton’s assessment of the Kenai king situation.
“If we’re in times of abundance and if the run improves, then we have no problem. That’s how I see it,” said Carlson-Van Dort, a board member from Anchorage. “But right now it’s not improving and that’s a big problem.”
However, managing to the new, higher OEG instead of the 13,500 to 27,000-fish SEG increases the likelihood that the department in any given year will use the paired restrictions.
The paired restriction concept was first enacted during the board’s 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting and has since been modified.
KRSA and other sport fishing advocates have pushed for restricting or outright eliminating the East Side setnet fishery because the near shore nets intercept Kenai and Kasilof-bound king salmon at a higher rate than other Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.
Salmon tend to swim along the beach as they approach their natal rivers and while kings generally swim deeper than the sockeye that the set netters are targeting, a portion of the kings returning to the Kenai are caught in set nets each year.
KRSA founder Bob Penney insisted in testimony to the board that he has long supported the commercial fishing industry in general, but Cook Inlet king salmon, and particularly those in the Kenai, are managed for sport fishing.
“Stop killing kings or stop fishing,” was Penney’s message to setnetters at the meeting.
From 2014 to 2019 the East Side setnet fishery harvested an average of 1,764 large Kenai king salmon per year, or about 8 percent of the total average run of 20,469 fish according to Fish and Game data. During that time the in-river sport and dip net fisheries took an average of 3,976 large kings per year between harvest and catch-and-release mortality estimates.
Cook Inlet sockeye, on the other hand, are managed with a commercial fishing priority.
A KRSA-backed 2016 ballot initiative would have banned setnets in Cook Inlet but was declared unconstitutional by the Alaska Supreme Court.
KRSA Executive Director Ben Mohr said commercial fishing appropriately drives management across most of Alaska; however, the urban centers that surround much of Cook Inlet mean the region’s fisheries should be managed differently, according to Mohr.
“Cook Inlet is different. We hear it all the time and it’s true,” Mohr said to the board.
The latest paired restrictions approved Feb. 14 call for limiting the East Side setnet fishery to no more than 48 hours of fishing per week when department managers restrict the Kenai River king salmon sport fishery to no bait in an attempt to reduce in-river harvest in times of low returns.
According to the department, prohibiting bait in the Kenai king sport fishery reduces the catch rate by approximately 50 percent.
If managers feel based on sonar counts and run projections that the no-bait and 48-hour setnet restriction is not sufficient to meet the OEG, the sport fishery can be restricted to no bait and no retention of king salmon greater than 34 inches long. At that point, setnetters would be limited to no more than 36 hours of fishing per week.
KRSA’s original proposal called for limiting harvest to kings less than 36 inches under this restriction tier, but Payton proposed the 34-inch maximum to align with the size fish department officials consider “large king salmon” for counting purposes.
When the sport fishery is limited to strictly catch and release, the setnet fishery is limited to 24 hours of fishing time per week; and when the Kenai late-run king sport fishery is closed the East Side setnet fishery is closed as well.
The regulatory language also calls for a mandatory 36-hour setnet closure starting between 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. Friday each week while the paired restrictions are in effect.
Managers can also allow East Side set netters to fish 600-foot “beach nets” without the time limitations during times of paired restrictions. Central Cook Inlet district setnet fishermen are typically allowed to fish up to 1 or 1.5 miles offshore depending on the sub-area.
Kenai/Soldotna Advisory Committee vice chair and Kasilof-area setnetter Paul Shadura said that 600-foot beach nets can be productive at some setnet sites but noted the paired restrictions are announced via emergency order from the department, which means fishermen don’t know at any given time how or when they will be implemented.
That uncertainty can have practical implications on scheduling fishing crews and work hours for setnetters with other employment, according to Shadura.
Additionally, the new regulations direct department managers to implement the paired restrictions earlier in the setnet fishery when they project the OEG will not be achieved under the normal regulatory regime.
Previously, the setnet restrictions kicked in July 1 — when the late-run sport fishery also officially starts — in years of low returns; the board pushed that date up to June 20 in an effort to protect the early-returning late-run kings.
The setnet restrictions can only be lifted after the OEG is reached based on daily sonar counts.
Setnetters often bristle at the premise of paired restrictions, noting that while harvest is restricted in the sport fishery when king returns are low, anglers and guides are still allowed to fish continuously when setnet fishing time is greatly reduced.
Board member John Jensen, of Petersburg, highlighted that situation in discussing KRSA’s proposal.
“I know we have to conserve king salmon and that’s paramount but it’s going to come at some cost,” he said.
Jensen and Fritz Johnson of Dillingham voted against the new Kenai king management measures.
Commercial fleet protest latest restrictions
On a larger scale, Shadura and other commercial fishermen said their groups again took the brunt of conservation-focused fishing restrictions at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting.
“Board of Fisheries members should be aware of the devastating consequences of enacting these series of restrictions at this board cycle to the Cook Inlet commercial fisheries,” Shadura wrote in comments to the board. “The industry will be damaged, losing the baseline economies within Southcentral communities, many of which have anchored these communities for decades.”
Setnetters also questioned the science behind the new OEG. Allowing more fish to escape and spawn during years of large returns makes it less likely that the overall run will be as productive as it could be in the long-term if it were managed to the lower SEG range based on department modeling.
That’s because, among other factors, juvenile kings rearing in the river will compete with each other for limited food supplies, the commercial fishermen argue.
Commercial fishermen generally support management that achieves the lower end of a sustainable or biological escapement goal, as that usually limits forgone harvest opportunities while also allowing the run to be as productive as possible by returning many more fish than were allowed to spawn several years prior, they insist. The theory is known as maximum sustained yield management.
Specific to the Kenai, they note the early run of kings, which is not subject to commercial harvest in the Inlet, is also suffering.
However, KRSA and other in-river advocates note that sport fishing is at its best when more fish are allowed to enter the river and can be harvested there. They argue that while ADFG models indicate the OEG likely won’t result in maximum sustained yield, it will not exceed maximum sustained recruitment, or the point at which so many fish escape and spawn that their offspring do not replace them one-to-one.
ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the OEG is an allocative decision that will simply put more fish in the river at the expense of other users.
“It will increase the number of fish into the river. It may not over time increase the yields of fish into the river,” Vincent-Lang told the board.
He added that the department doesn’t have a firm answer as to what is harming Kenai kings — or king stocks statewide — but said it is likely numerous factors impacting the fish when they go out to sea.
“When we don’t understand ocean conditions we should err on the side of caution and put more fish in the river,” Vincent-Lang said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]