By Jenny Neyman
A cost-recovery fishery involving set nets stretching into Cook Inlet a few miles south of the mouth of the Kenai River in June, picking off sockeye headed for the Russian River sportfishery and some specimens of the late-returning early run of Kenai kings, netted a hefty dose of controversy, along with the money needed to operate an important sockeye test fishery scheduled for July.
But there may be a silver lining for those opposed to funding the July test fishery through the June cost-recovery fishery, as the ruckus raised has caught the attention of legislators, who may agree to fund the test fishery with state money, rather than the Alaska Department of Fish and Game catching and selling fish to pay for it.
“We’re gonna discuss it when we get back to Juneau,” said Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. “It’s an issue that comes up every year. Should we be paying for it? A number of us think that we should be paying for it. So we’ll work on it and try to get it funded into the budget and eliminate this type of problem from happening again.”
Counting on the run sockeye numbers
In 1978, Fish and Game began an offshore test-fishing project to provide an in-season estimate of the returning sockeye run to Upper Cook Inlet in July. Through a sealed bid process, Fish and Game contracts with a drift gill-net fishing boat, which fishes six sites stretching from Anchor Point across Cook Inlet every day in July. Fish and Game uses the catch data from that test boat and by about July 20 comes up with an estimate of the sockeye run strength. That estimate has far-reaching consequences on the management of the commercial, sport- and personal-use sockeye fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet.
“It gives us an indication of the total run and of the run timing of sockeye salmon that are entering the inlet. It’s kind of a heads-up for what’s going to happen later in the month, and many decisions are based upon that,” said Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.
For instance, if the returning run of Kenai River sockeye is estimated at less than 2 million fish, management plans call for restrictions on fishing. If it’s more than 2 million, fishing opportunities can be liberalized.
“It’s very important to the department to assess the run strength so we know ahead of time which of these management plans that we’ll likely end up following, because they’re pretty big changes when the run is less than 2 million versus more than 2 million Kenai River sockeye salmon. It’s an important tool. That’s why we’ve been willing to conduct the cost-recovery fishery and believe it’s important to generate those funds for that important research program that we conduct in July,” Shields said.
Fishing for funding
From 1978 to 1986, funding for the test fishery was provided by the Legislature through state general funds. But a drop in oil revenue in the mid-1980s caused the state to scale back on money for general-fund projects. Fish and Game was authorized to catch and sell fish — called cost-recovery fisheries — to pay for its test fisheries. The fish harvested as part of a test fishery are sold, but for the Upper Cook Inlet sockeye test fishery, that only generates about one-third of the money needed to fund the test boat — about $23,000 of the $75,000 project — leaving a gap of $50,000.
A supplemental cost-recovery fishery effort was begun to make up the funding shortfall. At first, a cost-recovery fishery in Bristol Bay generated funds for the Upper Cook Inlet test fishery, but the practice of catching and selling fish from one part of the state to support a test fishery in another region began to stir up complaints in the late 1990s, so Fish and Game nixed the practice in its standard operating procedures on test fishery projects.
In 2002, a cost-recovery fishery in Upper Cook Inlet began, which this year was a source of heated controversy in June. When the Cook Inlet cost-recovery fishery began, drift boats were used in an effort to harvest fish from all stocks, rather than targeting returns on just one or two rivers. But the catch rates weren’t great enough to balance the higher costs of using drift boats, so Fish and Game decided to use only set-net fishing.
As the fishery works now, the department uses a sealed bid process to contract with a fish processor, which commits to paying a set rate per pound for fish. The processor then contracts with fishermen, setting a separate rate per pound that the fishermen will be paid. A limited-entry permit isn’t required to participate in the fishery, but the fishing slots do end up going to commercial fishermen, since they’re the ones who already have the gear and set-net sites.
The cost-recovery fishery used to be held in July, catching and selling fish from the same Upper Cook Inlet sockeye run that the test fishery was monitoring. Cost-recovery openings were sandwiched in between regular commercial fishing openings, but that proved unpopular with commercial fishermen and not profitable enough, Shields said. Some fishermen weren’t keen to do a cost-recovery fishery during the regular fishing season. The rate per pound fishermen got for cost-recovery fish was sometimes lower than the regular rate paid during a commercial opener. And fishermen with set-net sites neighboring the cost-recovery sites would grumble that fish were being taken from their nets.
“Sometimes the commercial fishermen weren’t as gung-ho to go out and fish, and just issues associated with not making our cost-recovery goal caused us to try to look at the program and go, ‘Is there another way that we can be more successful in meeting our cost-recovery goal?’” Shields said.
In 2008, Fish and Game started operating the cost-recovery fishery in mid-June. The start date is typically June 15, which coincides with the date the Kasilof sonar counter starts recording data. That helps managers monitor sockeye escapement in the Kasilof, so if the run comes back low, the cost-recovery fishery can be stopped. And the earlier-season fish fetch a higher price per pound, so less fish are needed to reach the $50,000 cost-recovery goal, Shields said.
Crossing the Blanchard Line
In the past few years, the cost-recovery fishery came and went with little fuss. This year, however, brought a change — Icicle Seafoods won the bid with a higher price of $2.25 per pound. Previously, Inlet Fisheries had gotten the cost-recovery bid and used set-netters around the Blanchard Line, halfway between the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.
Icicle contracted with two fishermen — Brent Johnson, whose set-net site is near Corea Creek, south of the Kasilof River and about 10 miles north of Ninilchik; and Gary Hollier, whose site is off of Kalifornsky Beach Road about two and a half miles south of the mouth of the Kenai River, and farther north than any of the fishermen Inlet Fisheries had used.
Johnson’s site is out of the public’s eye, and he conducted his part of the fishery without a hitch, getting 30 cents per pound from Icicle for the fish.
“This year Icicle won the bid. That’s the processor I sell to. I heard they got the bid, I called and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re looking for fishermen.’ They said they are. I said, ‘I’m your guy,’” Johnson said. “It’s only 30 cents a pound for me, so I’m doing it more as a service to Fish and Game. I didn’t know it was going to go wild.”
At that rate, he ran his nets conservatively, sticking with a skeleton crew of just his wife and three sons.
“We were allowed start on the 15th so, being fishermen, as soon as midnight clears we figure it’s the 15th so you’re on the beach. I said, ‘Stick out a net and see if there’s fish.’ There was a lot of debris and seaweed around, and you don’t want to be picking seaweed out of your net for 30 cents per pound,” Johnson said. “They put one net out, got some fish, so we put nine nets out 24 hours a day. We had to quit at midnight (the evening of June 17). We caught, I think, about 15,000 pounds. We were jazzed with it.”
In three days, the cost-recovery fishery netted 3,899 sockeye and 48 king salmon, with Johnson’s site hauling in most of the catch — about 2,900 sockeye and 45 kings. Hollier brought in less fish — about 1,000 sockeye and three kings, but netted by far the most attention. The first day his nets were in the water the site raised alarm throughout the community, especially among sportfishermen, and it wasn’t long before Fish and Game’s phone was ringing with people demanding to know why someone was set netting near the mouth of the Kenai outside of a commercial opener.
“It was the fisherman that was near the Kenai River that was more visible, and some folks saw that activity going on out there and called to find out what that was, and I guess that’s when the cost-recovery program became more visible to people that were unfamiliar with it or unaware that it was going on,” Shields said. “People asked, ‘Well, are you trying to hide this?’ And the answer is ‘No.’”
The processor contract goes out to competitive bid, and the program has been going on since 2002, so it’s not a secret, Shields said. Johnson said he was likewise surprised at the uproar this year.
“The thing has gone on for years. It moved four miles closer to the Kenai River with the gear that moved up there, and all of a sudden it’s a terrible thing because you’re four miles closer to the Kenai? Is that the difference?” Johnson said.
Context on the Kenai
Commercial fishermen and fish processors may have been aware of the June cost-recovery fishery, but as the resulting uproar demonstrated, it was not well-known among the general population of the central peninsula, particularly sportfishermen. And this was a particularly hot-button year for it to garner attention.
Notice of the cost-recovery nets near the Kenai came on the heels of concern that the early run of Kenai River king salmon wasn’t going to make escapement, prompting a controversial decision by Fish and Game to announce June 3 that it would restrict king fishing on the Kasilof River and close all king fishing in the Kenai River on June 5, without even allowing catch-and-release fishing, as many sportfishing guides and anglers would have preferred. A week later it appeared the early run kings were just late, rather than nonexistent, and by June 15 the last of the emergency king fishing restrictions were lifted.
Had restrictions remained in place, that may have caused a delay or change to the cost-recovery fishery, Shields said. This is the first year since 2002 that a low early king run and resultant fishing restrictions has been an issue, Shields said.
“Those restrictions that were in place at the time had us in discussions about what we should to do with the cost-recovery program,” he said. “Had those restrictions remained in place there probably would have been a delay or some type of change to the cost-recovery program. But those restrictions were liberalized so we went ahead with the cost-recovery program.”
Still, it stung guides and anglers that they were forced with little warning to stop all king fishing — resulting in lost revenue for guides from canceled fishing trips — then learn that Fish and Game was allowing set nets for sockeye near the Kenai, which would inevitably snag some of the very same kings the anglers were briefly forbidden from catching.
“Here you are, you have a depressed fishery with the kings into the Kenai, yet you want to go out and catch reds, and you’re also going to catch kings, to try to pay for your funding. You have the commercial fishermen that are mad because they’re not fishing but they’re getting blamed for it. And then you have the sport guys upset because you’re not letting them fish but you’re catching kings,” Chenault said.
Chenault said he plans to take the measure up in the next session, with legislators considering funding for all the test fisheries in the state.
“We had an amendment because it was a concern of some of the fishermen back during session,” he said. “We have to look at (each of) them because, depending on the circumstance, should they be funded or not? Especially in years where returns look like they’re going to be lower than average. We think that paying for it up front, then you don’t run into these problems.”