By Jenny Neyman
For the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the 2010 Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon run forecast may be tantamount to a declaration of economic disaster. The commercial fishing association’s executive director, Roland Maw, is wasting no time preparing to ask for state and federal assistance should the season end up as bad as it is looking to be.
The run forecast, issued Dec. 29, 2009, estimates a total Upper Cook Inlet sockeye run of 3.6 million, with an escapement of 1.3 million fish and harvest of 2.3 million fish. That’s about 1.7 million less fish for harvest than the 20-year average of 4 million sockeye. Maw sent a letter Jan. 26 to Gov. Sean Parnell’s office asking to be provided with the criteria and policies used in the state initiating a disaster declaration over the abysmal Yukon River king salmon fishery last year, in anticipation of this summer’s limited sockeye harvest opportunities warranting a similar disaster declaration.
Maw sent copies of the letter to a long list of additional recipients, including Alaska’s Congressional delegation, area state legislators, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mayors of the cities of Kenai and Soldotna and the borough, chairs of area Fish and Game Advisory Committees and several area fishing and ecological organizations.
“We just put everybody on alert, said, ‘Here’s the forecast. We all need some basic information and would you please send it out so the community is aware of it.’ Then let’s see what happens. We’ll probably have to revisit this matter in August,” Maw said.
The forecast for the Kenai River is 1.7 million fish, 45 percent under the 20-year average of 3.1 million. The forecast for the Susitna River is 542,000 sockeyes, down 41 percent from the 20-year average of 913,000. Management plans for both rivers call for restricting commercial fishing in the central area — as well as the northern district for the Susitna run — in order to allow more fish to enter the rivers and meet escapement goals.
As if that weren’t bad enough for area commercial fishing families, the harvest forecast could very well be even less than predicted, Maw said. That was the case last year, when a harvest of 3 million fish was estimated in the forecast, but only 2.6 million fish were harvested by all user groups.
“When the runs are in a building state the forecasts tend to underestimate the returns, and the reverse of that tends to be equally true. When the runs are in a decline, the forecast tends to say there’s more fish than are actually here,” Maw said.
“(The letter) alerts everybody, ‘This is what the forecast is.’ We’ll just have to see how this summer plays out because, yes, we do anticipate that the return to the Kenai this summer very well may be below the forecast. If that happens, we all could be in a pickle,” he said.
Maw said he’s already gotten supportive responses from Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and borough Mayor Dave Carey, recognizing that a low sockeye harvest doesn’t just hurt fishermen, it affects the entire community.
With commercial fishing, a poor harvest can mean a reduction in fishermen purchasing fuel, gear and supplies for their drift boats or setnet operations, fewer crew members hired, and less spending in general, Maw said. He said there are almost 600 drift permits issued and 700 setnet permits and estimated that, last year, about 380 driftnet permits were fished, and about 60 percent of the setnet permits were active. All told, with crew members, that accounts for 800 to 1,000 families or more.
“It’s a loss to oil and gas companies, it’s a loss to distributors and wholesales. We’re not buying gas for our pickups, we’re not buying tires. We’re not buying clothes. People go into a very conservative spending mode,” he said.
Fishermen and processors also pay fish taxes, which are reduced in low-harvest years.
“Those taxes come back to the borough, and is shared with municipal governments. That’s in the range of $600,000 to $700,000 a year. That means that this year, based on last year’s commercial harvest, that money is going to be significantly reduced. That comes back and bites everybody,” Maw said.
A weak sockeye run to the Kenai could negatively affect the sportfishing industry and, by extension, the tourism industry, which also generates significant amounts of money.
Maw said he inquired about the criteria for a disaster declaration after last year’s Upper Cook Inlet sockeye harvest only came to 2.6 million fish, and was told the harvest would have to be worse than that. He said an estimated 2.3 million harvest ought to qualify.
“We had meetings with folks in the governor’s office. They said the run needs to be well below 2 million. Last year’s wasn’t severe enough. Well, here you go. Now we want a copy of those requirements,” Maw said.
A poor Kenai commercial harvest in 2000 resulted in a state disaster declaration, but that didn’t do much practical good, Maw said.
“One of the solutions offered was, ‘We’ll just offer you cheap loans.’ I’m sorry, that does not work. It is almost an insult to the industry,” Maw said.
If the 2010 harvest ends up as poor as is forecast, Maw hopes to have the fishing season warrant a federal disaster declaration, as there is more flexibility with money that may become available. Funds would still need to be appropriated, and Maw said he hopes Alaska’s Congressional delegation will help with that, but once money is available, it could go to more than just fishermen.
“(With the state disaster declaration) there’s no recognition to the cities and municipalities and to other businesses that provide goods and services to this industry,” Maw said. “The federal one has a fair bit more flexibility. That would allow, yes, maybe some direct payments to fishermen and processors and businesses that are impacted. But also recognition that maybe we do need to have some biological assessment work and remediation work done. There may be some money to offset raw fish taxes to the borough and (Cook Inlet) Aquaculture Association and other sorts of secondary industries and governments can have some relief. The benefit that can be derived to the community can have quite a wider range of application under the federal one than the state one. Without question we would prefer the federal one.”
Beyond the letter to the governor, Maw sent another to Fish and Game requesting a management outlook from the Division of Sport Fish. The Commercial Fisheries Division prepares such a document when a run forecast is low, which helps the commercial industry plan for what’s ahead, Maw said.
“The management outlook says, ‘Gee, given that biological assessment of run strength, this is how we’re going to manage this fishery.’ In other words, ‘If that happens early (if the return is low) and we know there’s a small return, expect to be shut down by this date. If it happens a little bit later, expect to be shut down by that date. In any event, be on notice that management is going to have to intervene to make sure we get the escapement into the rivers so we have something four or five years from now,’” Maw said.
He would like to see the Division of Sport Fish share a plan of how it intends to manage the sport fishery throughout the river and personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai, open to Alaska residents only, if a weak return occurs.
“It came to our attention (the Division of) Sport Fish is not doing that,” Maw said. “So we sent a letter to Commissioner (Denby) Lloyd saying, ‘We’ve noticed the Commercial Fisheries Division is doing this in response to the biological forecast. Would you please, for this community, have the Division of Sport Fish tell us how they plan to manage the sport fishery and personal-use fishery in light of the forecast?’”
Of particular interest to Maw is whether the dipnet fishery will be restricted this year if it looks as though Kenai’s escapement numbers are in jeopardy. In 2009, commercial fishing of sockeyes bound for the Kenai River was shut down in July in order to make escapement numbers. Meanwhile, dipnetting continued unabated, and resulted in a higher harvest than ever before.
“Tell us what you’re going to do with the PU fishery, for example, so the city of Kenai knows how to staff their operations, just like the commercial guys need to know how to staff and gear up and the processors need to know how many crew and how much staff and how much fiber to buy for cardboard,” Maw said. “On the sport side, other people need to know similar kinds of information. If the run comes in weak and you know that by the 15th of July, what are you going to do with the PU fishery? Are you going to scale it back? Leave it run unabated? Are you going reduce bag limits? What are you going to do?”
The Kenai River drew a record number of dipnetters in 2009. Overall personal-use fishing was up in the state, with a record 29,619 permits issued — so many that permit vendors ran out during the season and Fish and Game had to print more. At the Kenai, Fish and Game estimates 26,043 household days fished, up from 20,676 in 2008. Participation was up at the Kasilof River personal-use fisheries, as well, with 7,571 days fished per household in the dipnet fishery, compared to 5,493 the year before, and 1,761 days fished per household in the setnet fishery, up from 1,533 the year before.
Both the Kasilof and Kenai rivers saw dipnet sockeye salmon harvest numbers skyrocket past any previous records in 2009, at a time when commercial fishermen were forced to pull their nets from the water.
The Kenai River dipnet fishery harvested 339,993 sockeyes in 2009, up from 234,109 sockeyes in 2008. The Kasilof River dipnet fishery netted 73,035 sockeyes, up from 54,051 the year before.
Maw said he’d like to see equity in the way the sport, commercial and personal-use fisheries are managed.
“The management plan adopted by the Board of Fish says that sport, commercial, subsistence, educational and personal-use fisheries all shall be managed to meet the escapement goals. Did that happen last summer? No,” Maw said. “There was a conservation concern that was clearly identified — we just might not make this escapement goal. Because of that we’re going to shut down the drift and setnet fisheries, and we might reduce bag and possession limits (on sportfishing) in the Kenai River, but there was some debates about what management actions should or might be applied to the PU fishery. I didn’t agree with the decisions. If everyone is to bear in the bounty, everyone bears the conservation burden in times of scarcity. And to not implement that causes a great deal of angst and conflict in our community that I would just as soon not be there.”
Maw said that, especially in light of how popular the Kenai and Kasilof dipnet fisheries are becoming, it’s becoming increasingly important to manage them responsibly.
“What are you going to do if, for example, the Kenai River is a weak return at or below forecast and, let’s say 10,000 people decide to go to the Kasilof? It’s like squeezing on a balloon, you push on it in one place and it pops out somewhere else. How are you going to manage that demand, and not just here in the Kenai, but up in the Matanuska Valley and all those sport fisheries up there, as well?”
In looking at the Kenai and Kasilof dipnet harvest, Maw pointed out that the 2009 harvest not only represented more sockeyes caught, it represented a larger proportion of the overall harvest going to dipnetters.
“Four hundred thousand fish out of a 5- to 6-million fish return is one thing, but 400,000 fish out of less than a 2-million fish return is quite something else,” Maw said. “It’s not just the total numbers were up and that’s having an impact, it also is an impact relative to the size of the return.”
For comparison, those 400,000 fish could have kept the commercial fleet fishing for another week to 10 days, Maw said. That’s 2.4 million pounds of salmon, at about 6 pounds per fish. At an average commercial sockeye price of about $1.25 per pound, that would be about $3 million, just to the fishing operations, Maw said. Doubling that as those fish leave the processors, that would be about $6 million, he said.
“That $3 million going to the PU fishery, when you talk about multiplier effects, that could very well could equate to, conservatively, five times ex-vessel value. The loss inside this community could be $15 million in economic activity. And, gee, you know, did we gain that much on the other side? So we have some concerns about the economic arguments and concerns about polices being followed to share the burden of conservation. But in a very practical sense, I have to deal with the economic fallout that occurs in the lives of these fishermen.”
Robert Begich, area management biologist for the Division of Sport Fish, said he hadn’t heard about Maw’s request for a sport fish outlook paper.
However, “in the late-run sockeye salmon management plan for the Kenai River, all it says in there is the department shall provide for a sport and personal-use fishery. There is no provision for a fisheries restriction to the sport and recreational fisheries based on the forecast. All there is just speaks to liberalization for all fisheries,” Begich said. “And it doesn’t ever pertain to the forecast. Only when the in-season estimate run strength, which occurs in late July, is over 2 million, then the PU fishery can be liberalized by allowing it to go 24 hours a day.”
That doesn’t mean managers can’t or won’t restrict sport or personal-use fishing. Either would happen if the escapement goal isn’t going to be met.
“For the sport fishery, when we determine we’re not going to get sufficient numbers of sockeye into the Kenai River to achieve the escapement goals, that’s when there’d be an action taken,” Begich said. “When the department determined we were not going to get the numbers into the river to meet the escapement goal, that’s when (restricting the sport and PU fishery) would occur.”
Begich said fisheries managers expected there to be an increase in the Kenai dipnet harvest this year, in keeping with the increased participation in the fishery. However, it can be difficult to predict a dipnet harvest based on numbers of permits issued, because not all permit holders actually fish.
“The issue with the permits is there’s several thousand that people get the permit but they don’t participate. So even through more permits are issued, it doesn’t necessarily translate to a great big bump in the effort. But we printed more permits because we issued more. So the natural thinking is all of those people were fishing. Well, all of them weren’t, but the effort still went up,” Begich said.
Fish and Game ties the low run forecast in the Kenai to overescapements that happened in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the parent years for the 2010 sockeye run. Maw sees those overescapements as a failed Fish and Game experiment to test escapement limits and wants the state to be prepared to take responsibility for the problems caused by those overescapements.
“We said five years ago, ‘Well, we wish you wouldn’t do it,’ but you know what? The experiment’s in the water. The fish are going to tell us who’s right,” Maw said. “If the experiment turns out that we were right, we’re going to come and ask for some help, because you created it. We didn’t ask for this pox to be on our house, it was invented by other people. And now we’re sort of reaping the economic whirlwind of that bad decision.”