By Jenny Neyman
Representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game got what they asked for in a public meeting hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association on Friday at Peninsula Grace Brethren Church on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
“This is a great opportunity for me to speak to you, but also to hear from you about your questions and concerns,” said Cora Campbell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Campbell, along with Jeff Regnart, Division of Commercial Fish, and Charlie Swanton, Division of Sport Fish, spent two hours being peppered with questions and emotionally charged statements from the crowd, particularly regarding the closure of sportfishing for king salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers this summer, and the subsequent closure of the east-side Cook Inlet commercial set-net fishery for sockeye.
A caveat in the late-run Kenai king management plan requires the department to close commercial sockeye set netting if in-river king fishing is shut down due to low king runs, a measure passed by the Board of Fisheries intended to spare kings from set nets in order to boost escapement in the rivers.
Several in the audience questioned the wisdom and fairness of that requirement. Department representatives acknowledged that this method of protecting kings lacks finesse.
“It’s a very blunt tool,” Campbell said of that provision of the management plan. “But it indicates that if we’re projecting that we’re not going to meet escapement for late-run Kenai kings, that the in-river fishery closes and the set-net fishery closes. That was something that the Board of Fish adopted years ago. That’s what the management plan directs us to do.”
Regnart was asked if he thought the plan was an effective way of managing the fisheries in season. It gets the job done, he said, though the consequences can be steep.
“It does it in a way that can be quite difficult. Everybody here in this room felt the weight of that plan this year. As the commissioner described, it’s a blunt tool. It’ll get the job done, so I guess my answer to this would be yes, but it does it in a way that the users can pay a very high price,” he said.
This summer was an unusual season, and this is the first time that portion of the
management plan had been invoked, Campbell said. Starting out the season, managers expected the king runs to be weak, and judging by low king returns elsewhere in the state, managers feared the Kenai return would be even lower than predicted.
Accordingly, Fish and Game started the season managing conservatively in June, including putting restrictions on king sportfishing, and abandoning previously scheduled set openings for commercial fishing. The idea was to manage set-netters for abundance, opening commercial fishing for shorter periods when large numbers of fish were heading up the beach to the rivers, in order to maximize the sockeye catch while decreasing overall fishing time so as to spare as many kings from the set nets as possible, Regnart said.
“We knew at that point (in June), based on not only Upper Cook Inlet information on king salmon, but also statewide, that kings were weak and that we were going to have to progress through the season in a very precautionary state,” Regnart said. “… So, basically, make our time count and at the same time if we can make it count for sockeye and do strategic strikes, maybe we can help get additional king numbers into the water. We attempted to manage on abundance, which is unusual for Cook Inlet because the fishery is based on regularly scheduled periods. That was a departure over what has been done in the past, and that was an attempt to deal with what knew was going to be a weak chinook run.”
Come July, the late run of kings to the Kenai, which typically is much stronger than the early run of kings in June, was also shaping up to appear drastically low. That led to the decision to close in-river sport fishing midmonth and, thus, according to the management plan, to close large areas of east-side sockeye set-netters, as well.
To many in the audience, closing set-netting along with in-river king sportfishing was seen as an unfair tradeoff, especially since it resulted in overescapement of sockeye, which can limit survivability of smolt and lead to lower future runs. To Fish and Game, however, it was a balancing act.
“I think it’s important to recognize that even in a fishery where the primary catch is sockeye and we’re managing primarily for sockeye, if there is a harvest of king salmon and we have a very low return of kings like we did this year, that the management plan for kings can reach out and affect that fishery, even when that fishery is primarily a sockeye fishery. I think everyone knows and recognizes that because that’s what we saw happen this year. When our managers are managing fisheries, it’s always … a balance between the needs of all the stocks in that fishery,” Campbell said.
To many set-netters forced to sit idle on the beach while their summer livelihood swam by,
the closure felt like Fish and Game was prioritizing kings over sockeyes. Would there be a point where sockeyes would take precedence, the audience wanted to know?
Yes, there would be a tipping point, Campbell said, but she couldn’t specify a number of where that point may be. There are too many factors that would need to be considered — how many kings versus sockeyes are in the river, how far into the runs are you, how many more fish are expected to come, how low are kings versus how high are sockeyes?
“You would just look at where are you in relationship to the goals and weigh the biological risks of either going over the goal for sockeye or coming in under the goal for kings, and that’s the balance that goes on,” she said. “… What I’m saying is I wouldn’t say today that number is ‘X’ because it would depend on where you were in the run and what more is to come and would also be balanced against where you were in the king run.
“Nobody has decided that kings are more of a priority than sockeye are, but we are looking at what the relative biological risk is, where we are in terms of being underneath one goal versus being over another goal, what the risk is to future yields of each of those things. So it’s not a matter of the value that we’re placing on each species, it’s a matter of the biologists’ assessment of risks associated,” she said.
The set-net closure also was not meant to place blame on one user group for the state of the king run, Campbell said.
“I think it’s really important to understand that when we have a really low abundance of a stock, everybody that harvests that stock will be asked to take a restriction. But I think that that’s really different than saying that somebody’s to blame for the decline. … We had a concern and we had to ask everybody to take a restriction and that was a very difficult thing to do, but we are absolutely not saying, by asking people to take those restrictions, we are not saying that anybody’s to blame for the decline.”
Local versus regional management of the fisheries was another area of concern.
“Why did Juneau and Anchorage take over the management of the local controversial salmon fishery? Do the higher-level biologists know more about the Cook Inlet? Are their decisions based on information the local biologists don’t have access to? Or is it that other, more important people, have access to it?” asked Debbi Palm, who said her family has been set-netting at Salamatof Beach for 50 years.
Campbell said that, most of the time, decision-making is delegated to regional staff.
“There are times when there may be more than one fishery affected, more than one area affected, other factors in play, and there may be a group of managers that gets together to make a decision,” she said.
One decision set-netters wish had been made was for the commissioner to exercise her authority to act outside of the management plan and open set-netting, despite the in-river king sport fishery being closed.
“I’m wondering why you did not respect the value of east-side set-netters and, in order to do that, you had to bypass the management plan. We thought you had the authority to open us this summer,” Palm said.
Campbell said that the commissioner may only disregard the dictates of the management plan under specific circumstances — if there were new information that was not available to the Board of Fish when they created the plan.
“And then there has to be a compelling biological reason to do something outside the management plan. So it has to be, going back to the commissioner has statutory authority, to conserve fisheries, that’s what that authority is based on,” Campbell said.
In this case, the department did not think this summer’s situation in Cook Inlet was one that the Board of Fish didn’t conceive of in setting the plan.
“We felt that wasn’t the case. (Closing set-netting) was albeit it a blunt (action) and created some very difficult hardship times, but it was pretty clear the intent (of the management plan),” Regnart said.
Others wanted to know why the department didn’t open set-netters more than just a few days in August, after the late-run Kenai king management plan sunsetted on July 31. At the time, managers still were concerned about king returns, Regnart said.
“There was some opportunity for (opening set-netting) during those times but it was limited, and it was limited based on where we were with chinook during that time period,” he said.
Even though the estimated escapement of late-run Kenai kings ended up meeting the escapement goal, Swanton said that managers weren’t sure that was going to happen until very late in the run, since the run itself was very late.
“For the first time in 2012 we saw almost 30-plus percent of the late-run king salmon run come in after the 31st of July. And traditionally, what we’ve seen in the past, is around 10 to 15 percent. So it was an anomaly that we couldn’t anticipate that that number of king salmon would come in that late in the season. Not only that, but as they came in, they stayed fairly steady for a number of days, and what we couldn’t anticipate at that point of time is when they were going to drop off a cliff, if you will, and go from 500 to 600 a day down to single digits,” Swanton said.
Set-netters will not soon forget how this season went, nor will fishery managers, Swanton said.
“Moving forward, we’re certainly going to be cognizant of what happened in 2012 and apply that to how we look at things going into 2013, because there might be a pattern there that we would have to adjust to,” he said.
The panel was pushed to concede that things could have been handled better.
“Do you feel that you could have been better at communicating before the season the disaster that was expected?” asked Robin Nyce. “My husband and I spent about $15,000 which we didn’t need to spend this year. So do you think that there is some way of understanding, on your part, that these are a bunch of small businesses making financial decisions before the season. That $15,000 for us would come in really handy right now. We would never have spent that if we had any idea that the season was going to go the way it has.”
Regnart said that the department does, indeed, have a responsibility to put out the best forecast it can.
“And there are times where we’re wrong. This is one of those times,” he said. “… We will continue to try to get better at forecasting, and put the tools we currently have to even better use — refine them, ask for outside peer review. Those are all things that we can do. I can’t tell you today that it won’t happen again in the future. Somewhere in the state we will miss a forecast and there will be a cost paid by the users. That will happen, but we will do our utmost to try to minimize that from happening very often.”
Department representatives touted changes in the Kenai king salmon sonar technology as a way to increase accuracy and confidence in monitoring escapement in the future. This summer the department switched to relying on the DIDSON sonar system, which more accurately tells kings and sockeye salmon apart. The problem, however, is that the current Kenai king escapement goal is based on the old sonar technology, so the department lacked confidence in relying on the DIDSON numbers, even though the DIDSON technology is known to be more advanced than the old split-beam sonar.
However, the department is in the process of drafting a new escapement goal based on DIDSON information. The department plans to put the goal document out for peer review in early January, and release it for public review in February. When the Board of Fish meets in October it will consider a change of agenda request to deliberate on Cook Inlet matters this spring. If the board consents, Fish and Game will present the new escapement goal for Board consideration.
“We are going to be developing a new escapement goal based on the new sonar. That, we believe, is going to be a very positive development for fisheries management to have that escapement goal based on the DIDSON sonar, and so, for the first time in several years on the Kenai, we’re going to have a clear target that we’re shooting for and we’re going to have a tool in the water that measures our progress towards that target,’ Campbell said. “It sounds like a simple thing, but that hasn’t been the situation in the past several years and it’s created a lot of confusion in-season about exactly where we are with the king salmon run. And so I think this will provide a lot more clarity and will be a benefit to users to have this system in place.”
In the meantime, Campbell encourages fishermen to continue a dialogue with the department, especially making suggestions for ways the fisheries could be management differently and more strategically in the future, should similar circumstances transpire.
“We’re really interested in talking to the users and seeing, is there something we can do differently?” she said. “… Really, it’s your fishery, you’re the mangers. We want to make sure we’re working closely with the fishermen on these solutions.”