By Jenny Neyman
“There’s nothing worse than not fishing then having to go to meetings to talk about not fishing.”
That jest, from Jim Butler, a member of the Upper Cook Inlet Task Force, drew chuckles from the crowd assembled for the Jan. 14 meeting at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai. Though it was a fitting sentiment for the six hours of detailed, science-heavy, acronym-laden discussion, the trumping sentiment of the day was one of progress.
“I think this is a starting point. It’s trying to make the best of Armageddon, if there’s a way to do that,” said task force member Ken Coleman, a set-net fisherman. “… We are trying to make sure there’s a place in the sun for both of us. How do we achieve that is the art of the deal. We’re heading that way, I think.”
Three proposals to change fishery management plans for the 2013 fishing season were submitted for discussion. Each aim to prevent 2013 from being a repeat of the disastrous fishing season of 2012 — with sport and set-net fisheries shut down — should similar factors of a late and/or low king return amid a robust sockeye run again be the case.
East Side Set-Net Proposal
The set-netters’ proposal suggests several changes to the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan, including:
If the projected spawning escapement is less than 15,000 kings, as projected between July 15 and 20, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shall:
- Restrict sportfishing to no bait and/or catch and release. (Existing language calls for closure of the king sport fishery and the set-netters, and does not specify the July 15 to 20 assessment time frame.)
- Close the personal-use dip-net fishery to retention of kings.
- Manage the commercial set-net fishery in the Upper Subdistrict of the Central District by emergency order management, and suspend provisions in other management plans relative to time and area restrictions from the Upper Subdistrict set-net fishery. (The goal here, by suspending the existing structure of regular fishing periods and closure windows, is that Fish and Game could call for emergency set-net openings when large pulses of sockeye are expected to pass the beach). The sustainable escapement goal will become an optimum escapement goal of 11,000 to 30,000 kings.
- Reassess late-run king escapement data on a daily basis. If the escapement projection rises above the 15,000 SEG, fishing restrictions shall be lifted.
- If it’s projected that the 11,000 OEG won’t be met, close the Upper Subdistrict set-net and late-run sport king fisheries until Aug. 1.
The idea behind the proposal is to allow managers more flexibility if a situation such as last year were to repeat itself.
“One of the things we looked at when we started down this path was a phrase that we heard over and over again in 2012, which was, ‘My hands are tied. We can’t accommodate this very unique circumstance. We see the harm it’s creating but we can’t use our adaptive management, either at the local level or the regional level, to help address this very unique circumstance,’” said task force member Jim Butler, a set-netter. “One thing we do know is that the existing structure resulted in a mandatory closure that basically created a tradeoff between millions and millions of dollars worth of business opportunity and lost taxes, for fish which we ultimately counted and made our goal. … So we’re trying to allow the managers to have some discretion if things get real tight.”
Some of the specifics drew debate. Task force member Kevin Delaney, a fishery biologist consultant with Kenai River Sportfishing Association, balked at the 11,000 OEG suggestion.
“We know we’re over there on the left-hand side of that production curve, the side that puts the fish at the most risk. We’re over there at a time when we have declining king salmon abundance, we have ocean conditions that aren’t favoring king salmon. We just came through six or eight years when the assessment capability that the department has had in place has essentially failed, and that’s why we’ve gone to the new equipment. So that’s just not a place (an 11,000 OEG) that I can support going at this time,” he said.
Butler said that the 11,000 OEG goalpost was set based on estimates from Fish and Game that an escapement of 11,000 or 12,000 kings produces the same size run return prediction as an escapement of 30,000 fish.
Delaney said that, under this proposal, the sport fishery would lose more harvest potential than the commercial set-netters would. Fishing without bait removes 60 percent of an angler’s harvest potential, he said. Fishing with no bait, a single hook and under catch-and-release restrictions means anglers are only going to encounter about 20 percent of the fish that enter the river, with about 2 to 5 percent mortality in catch-and-release fishing, he said. Meanwhile, the set-netters would have their nets in the water, incidentally catching kings.
“At that point of time out on the beach you’re going to get rid of regular periods and windows, and fish whenever the sockeye hit the beach. It doesn’t speak in any manner to how many king salmon might be taken,” Delaney said.
He expressed frustration at “bipolar behavior” from fishery managers in king conservation measures. When escapement in the June early run of kings looked to be in jeopardy a few years ago, Fish and Game closed a weekend of sportfishing, saving maybe 15 kings, he said. This year, going to catch-and-release sportfishing saved maybe 150 kings. When Fish and Game closes the entire upper river to sportfishing, that saves maybe 800 kings, he said. Yet every day the set-netters fish, they can kill hundreds of kings.
“That’s the cost of doing business out there and I want to keep doing business. But when we talk about de minimis savings, the sport fish managers look at those as the reason to catastrophically restrict the sport fishery, and then they’re the cost of doing business to catch sockeyes. We’ve got to get scientists and mangers together to reconcile that in a manner that we can all make sense out of. … If one or 10 or 100 fish are important to save here (in-river), from a biological standpoint, then it’s got to be important to save here (in the set-net fishery) and if not, then there has to be a real, rational, developed reason for the difference,” Delaney said.
The difference, to Butler, is that the issue isn’t just the king run. There’s also the sockeye run, and management of the two must be balanced, he said.
“For chasing maybe 150 fish we’re thinking about trading off millions of sockeye, this year and maybe future years. I think that if we go that path we’re failing in our job as a task force to balance those two competing issues. And, more importantly, that the department gets a clear message from the board that all the residents of Southcentral Alaska who depend on healthy, predictable sockeye yields over time. (They) should not be held hostage to 150 fish,” Butler said.
The average annual exploitation rate of late-run Kenai kings is about 39 percent. Of that, the east-side set-net fishery takes about 13 percent, and the other user groups — sport anglers and personal-use dip-netters — take 26 percent. The 13 percent doesn’t balance out to being worth missing a set-net season, Butler said.
“Looking at a 13 percent exploitation rate, the 100 or 200 kings that might be caught in the east-side set-net fishery could equate to a half a million or three-quarters of a million sockeyes caught. … What we’re trying to do in a community context is how do we think in terms of what tradeoffs we make in that regard? The window of time for our beaches is very narrow. If we don’t get that window of opportunity in those 10 days (when the bulk of the sockeye run hits the beach) we’re done,” Butler said.
Task force member Dwight Kramer, a private angler and chair of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Association, offered a plan similar to the set-net proposal.
If the king run is forecast to be low, the sport fishery would start off July 1 with no bait as a precautionary restriction to protect early run kings still below the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna, and give late-run kings a chance to build numbers.
If by July 15 the late-run kings are projected to fall below the 15,000 SEG, Fish and Game would take the following actions:
- Restrict the sport fishery to no bait and/or catch and release.
- Change the set-net fishery to adaptive management with the closure windows removed, and with Fish and Game having the authority to open fishing by emergency order to harvest large pulses of sockeyes.
- Make the SEG an OEG of 13,000 to allow some latitude in the escapement so that both fisheries can remain open in a restrictive manner.
- Close the personal-use fishery to king harvest.
If Fish and Game projects that the OEG of 13,000 will not be met, then both fisheries will close.
On Aug. 1, the sport fishery will close by regulation, and the commercial fishery will revert back to regular periods with Fish and Game oversight to ensure late-run king escapements will be met.
“It’s along similar lines (as the set-net proposal) in the spirit of the task force to try to find a way for fisheries to remain open and still look out for the well-being of the resource,” Kramer said.
His goal was to give managers flexibility in trying to balance limitations on harvest of kings while still allowing the set-netters an opportunity to harvest sockeyes.
“You would have a king harvest (in the set-net fishery) over that time but it would be relatively low. I think the tradeoff would be for the amount of flexibility that’s built into it you’d allow the commercial fishermen a chance to make some income. Remember that the guided sport fishery in the river is still fishing, so they have the opportunity to make income,” he said.
Kramer said that he does not want to allocate kings to set-netters over sportfishermen. And as a private sport angler, he’d just as soon never have to go to catch-and-release restrictions. Still, he said that the guided sport industry, which certainly suffers economic repercussions from fishing restrictions, has more of an opportunity to still make some money — switching to sockeye trips instead of kings, or fishing a different river, for instance — than do commercial fishermen.
“The commercial set-net guys, it’s my feeling that when it’s closed down they’re out of work, so they suffer a bigger financial hardship on their families, I think. I’m not making a case for more fish for them, I’m just making a case for a system that allows them to participate. If it’s a bad run, under my scenario they’d only be fishing a few days out of the season when there’s large pulses of sockeyes. That might make a difference for their families for income,” Kramer said.
Task force member Andy Szczesny, a sport fishing guide, pointed out some of the financial fallout that comes to his industry when fishing is restricted. Going to no bait can mean losing 50 percent of your clients, he said. Catch-and-release restrictions can mean as much as 90 percent of your trips are lost.
“We always seem to be talking about the economics of the commercial fishery. We have to start taking into consideration the economics of the sport fishery. It’s hundreds of hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re both in this together. We’re both linked in this, whether we like this or not,” Szczesny said.
A concern from Fish and Game on both the set-net and Kramer’s proposals is the inclusion of specific dates — July 15 in Kramer’s versus July 15 to 20 in the set-net proposal.
Historically, by July 11 a quarter of the king run is into the river, and July 19 is usually the midpoint of the run. So July 15 or July 15 to 20 would usually be a reasonable time frame to be able to assess whether the run was in trouble, but that’s not always the case. Part of the problem last season was that the run came late.
“If you start hardwiring dates in there it can take away from your ability to then react to what you believe true run timing to be,” said Tom Vania, area regional management biologist for the Division of Sport Fish.
Delaney offered a proposal based on four principles: to achieve Fish and Game’s recommended SEG escapement range of 15,000 to 30,000; designate statistically significant and implementable trigger points for management actions; retain management directives primarily for sport, minimize commercial harvest of late-run kings and maintain approximate historical distribution of harvest between in-river sport and set-net fisheries; and share the burden of conservation between the fisheries.
- If escapement is projected to be on the higher end of a 22,000 to 15,000 range, the sport fishery would go to no bait, the middle river — above the Slikok Creek sanctuary — would remain open to harvest from July 15 to 30, and the saltwater sport fishery would be restricted to offshore waters. The personal-use fishery would be restricted from retaining kings. The Upper Subdistrict set-net fishery would be limited to 24 hours a week through Aug. 10, fishing by emergency order or on regular opening days of Mondays and Thursdays. The 36-hour Friday mandatory commercial closure window would remain in place.
- If escapement is projected to be in the lower end of a 22,000 to 15,000 range, the sport fishery would go to catch and release, and the set-net fishery would be “further restricted in a manner to be developed by the set-net participants with the objective of harvesting very few late-run king salmon using time, area and/or gear restrictions,” through Aug. 1. The 36-hour Friday closure window would remain in place.
- If escapement is projected to be less than 15,000, sport and set-net fishing would be closed through Aug. 10 and the drift net fleet would be restricted to offshore fishing.
The idea is that if the sport fishery’s harvest potential is restricted, then the set-net harvest potential should also be restricted in an equitable manner.
“My principle here would be to turn to you guys and say, ‘Is there anything you can do to dial it down a little bit like that?’ … I’m looking for a shared pairing of restrictions that allow us to achieve our escapement objective and take some risk off the table on the fish side,” Delaney said.
Butler’s concern was that the pairing of restrictions didn’t account for the sockeye run.
“We would fail in our mission if we do nothing but focus on what’s happening on the chinook run and fail to recognize the consequences on the sockeye run. What I’m afraid we’re doing is we’re using the wrong sort of tool if we also want to meet our objective of dealing with the consequences of managing a complex sockeye run at the same time we’ve got low kings,” Butler said. “If nominalizing the ability of the fleet to harvest when fish (sockeyes) are available, that doesn’t really help us out of the problems we’re trying to fix.”
“My assessment is, with the bare minimum run like we had last year and a somewhat strong stomach early in the season, this would get us through with retention but no bait, single hook, and 24 hours per week on the beach. That’s a heck of a lot better than what we had in 2012,” Delaney said.
Any possible management plan changes the task force agrees upon will be sent as a recommendation to the Board of Fish at its meeting this spring. If approved, changes would only be in effect for 2013 and would sunset after that.
“We’re going to be in an experimental year. So there’s a huge learning curve coming up at us. I’m hoping we can come up with enough sideboards, enough options to get people feeling secure about it, get something to the board to consider, see how it works for a year and how we come out,” said Tom Kluberton, task force co-chair and a member of the Alaska Board of Fish.
The task force is scheduled to meet again Feb. 14. In the meantime, the task force’s Web page has a comment section for people to continue the discussion (see address below).
Kramer ended on a hopeful note that something useful will come from these meetings, no mater where the task force lands.
“I feel that through these meetings the department is much more aware of the situation. … I feel comfortable that the department will be much more aware of everybody’s concerns and I think that they’re going to take that into consideration as they make in-season evaluations this year, and I’m hoping that everybody gets to fish,” Kramer said.
For more information on the task force, visit www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=ucitaskforce.main.