By Patrice Kohl
For the Redoubt Reporter
Urged to do more with less, salmon fishermen are buckling down. Like Americans that once rationed sugar and butter to support war efforts, fishermen are pulling nets and lures from the water to support conservation efforts. As of Monday, the late run of Kenai River king salmon looked like it might be headed for a fourth consecutive year of weak returns, following an already weak early run in June that included several restrictions on fishing.
At a Monday morning rally, sport anglers and fishing guides said they were particularly cognizant of the need for all fishing groups, including their own, to make sacrifices to allow adequate king salmon spawning.
“We’re going to err on the side of conservation in years of low abundance. And we’ll live with that, and that’s how it is,” said Kenai River Guide Association President Dave Goggia in a speech at the rally.
Long-term king fishery declines prompted more than 50 fishermen — mostly sport and guides — to gather outside the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Soldotna. They asked that the department do more to protect the king fishery, whether through improved data-gathering or stronger restrictions.
While many of the fishermen questioned whether department restrictions fairly distributed the burden of conservation among fisheries groups, anger over allocation issues was tempered with a deeper concern for the well-being of the fishery.
“I hate to see king salmon fishing, which is so great here, start to dwindle,” said Rick Beckers, a local sport fisherman at the rally. “Then, before you know it, it will be done. It’ll be catch and release only.”
Both sport and commercial fisheries have faced unprecedented restrictions this year to conserve kings. For the first time in the sport fishery, for example, the late-run Kenai king season began with a restriction prohibiting bait.
And to prevent interception of Kenai kings in the commercial fishery, set-net fishermen north of the Blanchard Line targeting Kenai sockeye salmon were kept out of the water for what should have been their opening Monday. Pat Shields, Fish and Game area management biologist for commercial fisheries, said he could not recall any other time when the opener had been closed.
And until at least Saturday, sportfishing for kings has essentially been restricted to catch and release in the Kenai.
Only the retention of the smallest kings — less than 20 inches — and the largest, “trophy” kings — greater than 55 inches — is allowed. Restrictions also prohibit personal-use dip-net fishermen from retaining incidentally caught king salmon, and limit sportfishing for kings in the Kasilof River to catch-and-release only.
Finally, the Kasilof sockeye set-net fishery — south of the Blanchard Line — has also faced closures to minimize incidental Kenai king catches. In a normal year, those commercial set-netters would have fished nine or 10 times by now, but this year have fished only twice.
Despite heavy restrictions, Fish and Game managers say they have not faced a lot of pushback and that fishermen seem to understand the severity of the issue.
Jason Pawluk, Fish and Game assistant area management biologist for sport fisheries, spoke with several fishermen attending Monday’s rally and said fishermen have expressed deep concern, but also support for preserving the fish.
“People have generally been accepting of the restrictions that are being implemented,” he said.
And before Monday, many Kenai sockeye set-net fishermen had been calling Fish and Game, asking the department to close their opening fishery.
“Their rationale for asking us not to fish was to pass king salmon into the Kenai River. And they’re asking us not to fish again on Thursday,” Shields said. “Many people in the commercial industry understand that we’re in a serious situation, that we need king salmon in the river. And right now we don’t have very many.”
Shields said that not all commercial fishermen were on board with the restrictions. And he acknowledged that the set-net fishermen requesting closures were motivated by the hope that enough kings might escape into the Kenai River early on in the late run to allow commercial fishing opportunities by the time large numbers of sockeye show up.
Fishermen in both sport and commercial groups have been suffering economic hardships due to king declines. In a visit to Shields’ office Monday afternoon, Kasilof set-net fisherman Elizabeth Chase said that she has to explain to customers that fish deliveries have been put on hold to preserve sustainable fisheries.
“It helps them to understand that the Department of Fish and Game has one agenda, and that’s the health of our rivers,” she said. “I tell all of my customers to just keep praying those kings in.”
Guides also do a lot of explaining to customers calling to inquire about fishing trip reservations. Guides are
swallowing hard as they are squeezed by a drop in reservations and increased fishing restrictions for kings.
“We need to make it about the kings and not about us or our pocketbooks. It has to be about the kings,” Goggia said.
During the rally he responded to a fisherman questioning whether sportfishermen were being disproportionately restricted.
“Because we started with no bait, we probably started off a little uneven, but the commercial fishermen aren’t fishing right now,” Goggia said. “Today they could have been open. They’re not out there. To be honest, do we have other options? Some gotta leave today, because we’ve got trout trips or other trips we gotta do. So while we’ve got a few options, they don’t.”
However, some commercial fishermen are looking for other options. Chase, for example, gives tours of her set-net operations and is trying to start a flounder fishery as alternative sources of income.
Pawluk said that, in waiting out the hardships of the king decline, there seems to be a growing sense among fishermen that the scope of the problem goes beyond what is occurring in and at the mouths of their rivers — particularly since a decline in kings is evident statewide.
“This isn’t just something that’s happening on the Kenai and the Kasilof,” he said. “It’s also happening on the Anchor. Deshka made its goal, but barely, and it’s because they closed the fishery for a significant amount of time. We’re seeing extremely low king abundance on the Yukon and have for many years. Kodiak’s Ayakulik and Karluk rivers are barely making their goals and they’re closed the entire year prior to the fishing season even starting.”
King run declines occurring throughout the state suggest that factors in the marine environment are contributing to the problem, Shields said. Marine factors that may be impacting king populations include the interception of king salmon by high-seas fisheries, such as the pollock and black cod fisheries, and the Pacific decadal oscillation.
Pacific decadal oscillations cause shifts in ocean currents, temperatures and, consequently, distribution of food sources that can impact king salmon populations while at sea. Shields said that if the oscillations are responsible for king declines, then it may be a long wait before things return to normal. Shifts due to the oscillations can last as long as 30 years.