By Jenny Neyman
The signs being waved by Cook Inlet commercial set-net fishermen during several days of rallies in recent days outside the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office on Kalifornsky Beach Road, as well as in downtown Kenai and Soldotna, are a range of adroit to plaintive to biting, and most bluntly succinct:
“Let us fish,” they decry to the Fish and Game officials who issued an order July 17 that, as of Thursday, curtailed the set-netters’ commercial fishing season for sockeye salmon before it had even really begun. Some fishermen had been able to fish three tides, while others only got their nets wet once.
“Unfair,” “Take back our river,” and, “Honk if you love set-netters,” read others, encouraging support from onlookers, whether they be Cook Inlet commercial drift-net fishermen, professional fishing guides, guide clients, dip-net fishermen or private sportfishing anglers; neighbors in the community or neighboring Kenai Peninsula communities, state residents from elsewhere in Alaska, or visitors from out of state and beyond.
All of them — Kenai drift-netters, Sterling fly-fishermen, Anchorage dip-netters, Soldotna guides, Texan guide clients and German rod-and-reel sportfishermen — still have the ability to fish for the abundant run of sockeye salmon heading into the Kenai River. It’s just the set-net fishermen who sit with their nets high and dry, denied access to the sockeye fishery from which they make their living, in the name of conserving a low return of late-run king salmon.
“We feel like we’ve been doing a very uneven burden-sharing in this conservation. We’ve got the brunt of it. We’re basically the only user group that’s not involved in this sockeye harvest that’s going on right now,” said Robbie Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and a set-net fisherman at South Cohoe in Kasilof since 1981.
Paul Shadura, with KPFA and a third-generation commercial set-net fisherman on the east side of Cook Inlet, put it even more bluntly than the most sharply worded signs:
“We understand conservation. We’re not interested in fishing unless the fish are available. We reluctantly take those burdens. We don’t exactly accept what the department’s evaluations are — we think they’re very flawed — but to take that opportunity completely away and decimate all these families is a disaster, and what we feel is allocative in nature,” Shadura said. “It’s just an aberration for the department to implement this without even consideration for the communities and the fishermen in those communities. This will be a reverberation for the rest of our lives, and for some of us — like myself who are third-generation fishermen and whose family has been here for over 100 years doing this on the beaches — to decimate us and put us out of business is a travesty.”
Without fishing work to attend to, set-netters have an abundance of time to protest, rally support and stew over the questions they’d like answered. They find most of the answers being offered to be bitter pills to swallow. Many explanations they question or quibble with, if not reject altogether.
Why aren’t set-netters being allowed to fish?
Cook Inlet commercial set-netters fish for sockeye salmon, a stock that is returning in ample abundance this year, projected to be in the range of 6.2 million fish. But, while sockeye salmon are returning en masse, the late run of king salmon, which returns in about the same July time frame as sockeye, are not. Not by a long shot. This is shaping up to be the poorest return of kings to the Kenai since such records have been kept.
As of July 15, with about 40 percent of the run complete, Fish and Game estimated a cumulative 4,033 late-run kings as having entered the Kenai River. Based on sonar counts and various other in-season methods Fish and Game uses to estimate run strength, a total run of 10,300 to 15,800 late-run kings was projected for the Kenai River. That’s less than even last year’s weak late run, and far less than the amount called for in the Kenai River Late-Run Salmon Management Plan, set forth by the Board of Fisheries. The plan dictates that if the late run is less than 17,800 king salmon, the department must shut down the king salmon sport fishery in the Kenai River in order to conserve the run and help ensure adequate escapement of kings into the river to spawn.
That action was announced July 17 and went into effect Thursday through July 31 — banning all sportfishing for kings in the Kenai, as well as the Kasilof River and surrounding streams and saltwater areas. The retention of kings also has been banned by anyone participating in the Kenai or Kasilof dip-net fisheries.
Closing the late-run Kenai sport fishery is an unprecedented first, and kicked in a second unprecedented action. Another caveat in the late-run Kenai king management plan says that if in-river king salmon sportfishing is shut down, then commercial sockeye set netting must also be shut down to conserve the king salmon that might otherwise be caught in the set nets. Even without targeting kings, set-netters are the largest commercial harvester of kings in Cook Inlet, by virtue of fishing off the beach, where kings are likely to be traveling when getting close to entering their natal stream. The reported commercial set-net harvest of kings has ranged in recent years from a high of 10,505 kings to 3,136 in 2010 to 355 this year when in-river king sportfishing and commercial sockeye set-netting were shut down.
“Both (actions) have been deliberated years ago by the Board of Fish, which said, ‘If you ever find yourself in this situation, we’re providing you direction for what to do.’ And they said if you have to go to a total closure in-river to protect kings, then you need to close the commercial primary harvester of kings, and that’s the set-net fishery. We really don’t even have an option on this one. The recipe book — the management plan, the law — says you will close,” said Pat Shields, Cook Inlet commercial fisheries manager with Fish and Game.
It’s not a decision made lightly, he said.
“This is the peak. This is when guides are taking out two sets of clients a day and when set-net fishermen are catching lots of sockeye and both industries are making the bulk of their income, and we’re closing them both. It’s pretty substantial,” he said.
Shadura said set-netters recognize the importance of the king runs. He and others with KPFA have supported efforts in the Legislature to fund sonar and research projects on Kenai kings and are supportive of enhancement projects, whether they be habitat enhancement or augmentation of stocks, he said.
And they’re willing to shoulder fishing restrictions to help conserve kings — to a point. Fish and Game, expecting a low king run, started out July managing the king sport fishery and commercial set-net fishery conservatively with restrictions in place from the get-go. Shadura said that set-netters could accept closures when kings are present and sockeye haven’t yet appeared in mass numbers, as happened earlier this season, but are less willing to sit idly and quietly by when the expected mass of sockeye arrive, especially when that abundance of fish could exceed the escapement level set for the river. If too many fish escape harvest to spawn, the river’s rearing capacity could be overtaxed, threatening sockeye fry survivability and possibly resulting in poorer runs in the future — not to mention guaranteed poorer bank accounts for set-netters in the present.
“We were told by the department that there would be some restrictions, some changes, but that we would be allowed to fish when the fish were abundant to us on the beaches. So we understood that there were some painful changes, but here we are in the middle of the game having hardly been in the water at all — some of us only one day — and the department is pulling the rug from underneath our feet. We have no recourse,” Shadura said.
Closing the set-netters in order to conserve king salmon amounts to trading one resource for another, he said, something Gov. Sean Parnell committed not to do.
“We find that abhorrent. We find that the majority of Alaska residents — whether they be personal-use users or sportfishing users or commercial fishermen — all rely on that abundance of sockeye,” he said.
Couldn’t something short of a complete closure be done?
Essentially, a desperate run calls for desperate measures. The sport and commercial fishing divisions started out the season managing conservatively. Even with slot limits in place and a restriction on bait, the king run simply didn’t materialize as hoped.
Still, KPFA contends that there were other restrictions the department could have tried before going to a full sportfishing shutdown.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Those are options the department never really visited this time around — time, area, means and methods. They started out conservatively this year and took away bait right from the beginning, but there are still options out there that they didn’t utilize,” Williams said.
For instance, he and Shadura suggest that the department could have stepped down to not allowing the retention of trophy-sized fish, or only allowing sportfishing three days a week, or only during certain hours of the day, or only in certain areas of the river.
“We thought they would do other things — they have a whole tool bag,” Shadura said. “There’s time, area, methods and means they have that management authority in season. They could have restricted hours, they could have restricted dates, they could have restricted more areas within the river and still kept the opportunity alive and not close the river.”
Shields said the run was just looking to be too low.
“King salmon indicies in-river are low enough that we feel that without severe restrictions in the fishery, and in this case the restrictions are closure, we’re not going to make the goal. King salmon conservation is trumping everything else,” Shields said.
Is the data accurate?
Coming up with an accurate estimate of king salmon in the wide, silty, fast-flowing, heavily tidal influenced Kenai River is no easy task, and it’s one in which technology and methodology is in flux. In the past, Fish and Game relied on a split-beam sonar counter at mile 8.6 of the river as a main indicator of how many kings were entering the river. But the technology proved to be not terribly accurate, with a tendency to overestimate the abundance of kings due to difficulty telling smaller kings apart from sockeye.
In recent years the department has been working toward switching to a newer technology, dual-frequency identification sonar, installed at the king counter site in 2007. DIDSON produces screen images of fish, making it easier to tell kings from sockeye. The commercial fisheries division has already switched to solely using DIDSON technology at its sockeye-counting site in the river after running both the new sonar and old side by side for several years. The king counter site, instead of operating both the split-beam and DIDSON sonars side by side to gather more comparative data for another year or two, as was Fish and Game’s plan last year, was switched to using just DIDSON this year. That’s raised questions of how accurate the estimated king count has been.
“The confidence level is pretty low right now on the ability to enumerate these king salmon that we’re letting go and get into the river. And I’m not saying (the sportfish division) isn’t doing their best — they’re being scientists, they’re trying new methods and it takes awhile to shake that out and figure out how this DIDSON counter is going to work. But the problem is the experiment is happening during probably the second- or third-largest sockeye returns we’ve had coming back to the inlet,” Williams said. “Accurate or not accurate, (the split-beam technology) was an index that was relative every year. When they did this whole drill with the sockeye counters they ran six years side by side, at least, before they took the old counter out and switched to using the new DIDSON. It makes me wonder why you’d go through that process running the old and new counters side by side for one species and not the other.”
Debby Burwen, regional Fish and Game sonar biologist, said the department is confident in the switch to DIDSON, as it produces more-accurate counts than the old old split-beam sonar did.
“The past two years neither of the two estimates derived from the split-beam were reasonable, whereas DIDSON and all our other indices lined up very well. Running the split-beam was just a real handicap,” she said.
Last season, the Kenai king sonar counts produced by the split-beam sonar were found to be overexaggerated, at times by thousands of fish. Biologists recognized the problem and compensated for the error by factoring in other indices used to estimate the strength of the run — including surveys of sportfishermen, test-netting and tracking the commercial catch of kings.
But this year is different. The department is relying on DIDSON sonar technology, without all the same comparison data to fall back on, which has Williams worried. Not only is split-beam unplugged, but sportfishing for kings and the set-netters has been shut down, so fishermen survey data and set-net catch data isn’t available.
“The other indices they had to go by … that gives them a good, 30,000-foot view on what was going on with the fishery. But now that we’re not fishing and now that the sport fishery’s not fishing, those two most-important indicies aren’t available. That’s my big concern right now, we’re going kind of blind with this counter,” Williams said.
Burwen said she is confident in the accuracy of DIDSON, even without all of last year’s indices available. Of the ones that are still in use in the late run, DIDSON is matching up strongly, she said. One of the pieces of data the split-beam produced was a total number of targets counted. That number was then correlated to the proportion of kings to sockeyes caught in the in-river test net. That index is still being utilized with DIDSON.
“That is continued on, that total number of targets detected by the sonar. Those are still apportioned using netting data. … We’re still using that estimate and it does give some continuity to the split-beam. We felt that justified putting our efforts into getting a good DIDSON estimate sooner. What we took away from the (Board of Fish) meeting was to develop your best estimate as soon as you can,” Burwen said.
There have been a few hiccups, though, including a fallen tree temporarily interrupting the sonar beam. And because DIDSON produces a higher-resolution image to use to size fish (in order to tell small kings apart from sockeye), sampling is done in five- to 10-minute increments, for about 10 minutes an hour, rather than constantly. But Burwen said that’s still a statistically good sample.
“We don’t have any big holes in the data and feel quite good about it,” she said.
How much is gained from set-netters’ loss?
Set-netters question whether their being restricted from fishing for sockeye is a worthwhile tradeoff in terms of improving the king escapement. For one thing, while inlet commercial set nets do snag kings, that fishery isn’t the only cause of king salmon mortality. Upwards of 50,000 kings were reportedly harvested as incidental by-catch by the commercial trawling fleet in the Gulf of Alaska in 2010 alone. Ocean conditions — from water temperature to food availability and various other natural factors — could be affecting king salmon survivability long before they start their return trip to their natal streams.
Inlet commercial drift-net fishermen also incidentally catch kings in their nets. As of Thursday, 112 kings had been reported caught in drift nets, Shadura said. Prior to the fishing closures Thursday, sportfishing harvest of kings had been allowed, though with no bait and with only certain sizes allowed to be retained. For other sizes of kings, catch-and-release fishing had been allowed prior to Thursday, which carries an estimated 6 percent mortality rate, he said.
Shadura questions the supposition that set-netters do enough damage to the king run to warrant the shutdown.
“Our fishery has operated for over 100 years with relatively little changes, except for not having the fish traps anymore. We haven’t seemed to have decimated the runs through our activities, and that’s when we fished six days a week on a regular basis, or many more hours. We find it all baffling and we have real questions if it’s necessary to restrict a fishery where 99 percent of our harvest is on sockeye. Less than three-tenths of 1 percent last year was our ratio between sockeye and king salmon for the entire inlet, not just the east side, which is even lower than that. When there are very few fisheries in the state and even federal waters are that clean, so to speak — 99 percent,” he said.
Shadura said he asked Fish and Game for an estimate of how many kings are being saved due to set-netters being beached, and didn’t get a number.
KPFA can put numbers to the financial distress the closure is causing.
“Last year just the ex-vessel value of sockeye was worth about $50 million. Out of that probably 40 percent was money that set-netters earned, and that money goes directly back into the economy because we’re the highest residency rate of any fishery in the state,” Williams said. “They spend their money locally, so the businesses this summer are going to really suffer from what’s happened.”
Personally, Williams figures he’s about $10,000 in the hole in just the regular seasonal startup costs that he hasn’t been able to recoup — buying nets, line and cork, food for his crew and fuel for his skiffs and other equipment, and paying for crewmembers’ licenses. On top of that he bought a new John Deere tractor for this season. And he’s not near as bad off as others who are still paying the state for their set-net site lease.
“In my case my operation’s paid off, but I know of a bunch of people who have huge payments,” he said, including one operator who recently bought into a lease for $550,000.
According to KPFA, 84 percent of east-side set-netters are Alaska residents. Of those, 56 percent are residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and 14 percent live in Anchorage.
“We’re part of the community — we built these small communities here,” Shadura said. “We’re your doctors, your teachers, your laborers, your store workers. This is the part that allows us to stay here, allows us to feed our families and seek medical attention and supply the necessary funds for our children to go to college and better themselves. All these things now are going to be a burden on the state. Our defaults on our loans, our defaults on our taxes, the whole situation is going to reverberate, and then the pain will be noticed.”
Fishing crewmembers are hurt by the shutdown, too. Williams said that about half the set-netters he’s talked to — and it’s been 100 or so a day, he said — have either sent their crews home or had them leave to seek other work if unable to pay them to just sit around. Even if set-net fishing were to reopen late in the season — in August, perhaps — Williams said it could be tough to come up with enough hands to operate his 12 nets, and fears that experienced crew will be hard to come by in future years if the set-net fishery is no longer seen as reliable employment.
“You’re going to lose your seasoned crewmembers, and what you’re going to end up with is a bunch of new guys, a green crew every year, and that really hurts your production and it hurts the amount of nets that you can fish. That’s going to be a huge issue for us,” Williams said.
Still, Williams, for one, isn’t joining the ranks of set-netters looking for other work.
“My motto is never surrender, and I think our fishery is worth fighting for, I really do, for what it does for the local economy,” he said.
How can the state impose these limitations?
The issue of leases is one the set-netters find particularly galling in the shutdown. Commercial set-netters, in order to fish, are required to purchase a lease from the state, to be paid off over 10 years. Now the state, in the form of Fish and Game, is telling the set-netters they can’t use their leases, even though the stock those leases are for is plenty abundant.
“We are being denied our access and our opportunity to harvest fish on our leases that we are paying to the state,” Shadura said. “The state allows us to fish in these areas. It’s a privilege to fish with our permits but we also purchase these leases at several hundreds of thousands of dollars and now we’re denied the opportunity to utilize them on an abundant stock that we’re set up to fish for — sockeye.”
It’d be different if the sockeye return was struggling, Williams said, or if set-netters were allowed to fish and weren’t making much money because the catch was poor or the price for sockeyes had dropped. Fishermen are well aware that profit isn’t guaranteed, he said. They’re willing to pay their dues, put in their time and effort and gamble on a good result, as long as they get a chance to get in the game.
“If you’re going to be a fisherman you’re a risk-taker, you’ve got to know that going into it. It’s not the kind of business you can speculate on and get in a couple years and get out. We’re all in it for the long run. We’re like farmers — you take the good with the bad and we can handle that, but when the regulatory process turns from biological to political, that’s where I have a lot of problems,” Williams said. “Our shore leases through the state are no different than a gold-mining lease — it just provides opportunity — but when opportunity is taken away we’re never compensated for it, and it’s just been this cycle of loss we’ve been spiraling through for about 15 years.”
Will fishing resume?
KPFA representatives have been meeting with local department managers, as well as the commissioner of Fish and Game on Monday to make their case in hope that set-net fishing will be re-opened.
Shields said the local office has no leeway to decide that question. All area managers can do is try to balance the need for conservation of kings with the threat of overescapement of sockeye. The drift-net fleet is being fished aggressively to try to make up for the absence of their set-net commercial compatriots. Meanwhile, dip-netting has been extended to 24 hours a day and the bag limit of sport-caught sockeye in the river has been increased.
Williams contends that these measures, without set-netters fishing, won’t be enough to stem the tide of sockeye pushing into the river.
“If they just prosecute the fishery with the drift fleet, they’re going to be looking at putting an escapement of 2 million up the Kenai, which is way over the goal,” Williams said. “The drift fleet after about July 24th or 25th doesn’t get very effective at harvesting because the fish are on the beach by then. So we’re overescaping the river and crashing the red run for, like, 1,000 kings, is what we’re looking at for a tradeoff.”
Shields is well aware of that risk.
“The question we’ve been asked by multiple set-netters and other people is, ‘Are you going to completely ignore the sockeye salmon escapement? What happens if you begin to widely exceed the sockeye salmon goal? Will you ever put set-netters back in with the river being closed?’ And the answer to that is, ‘I don’t have an answer to that. And nobody does yet because it will depend upon a few things, one of those being, how poor is the king run?” Shields said.
“With all this closure and restriction we hope to see the kings entering the Kenai increase,” he said. “But if that doesn’t happen and they stay very low, you find yourself, for lack of better words, between a rock and a hard place: You need to protect the kings but you’re going to be willing as a department — you don’t like it, it’s not where you want to go — but you would be willing to take some overescapement in sockeyes in order to ensure adequate escapement of kings. There is a point where the department is going to have to wrestle with this and come to a decision, perhaps later in the month, on how many sockeye is too many? How many over the goal would we be willing to live with while we afford protection of kings by not fishing set-netters?”
That’s the ultimate question set-netters would like an answer to — the sooner, the better.
“There’s still time for us right now to at least fish enough to break even and where it would have a very minimal effect on the future runs of king salmon return,” Williams said. “But as time is ticking right now, every day is another nail in the coffin for us.”