Category Archives: salmon

Ninilchik files fish lawsuit — Tribal council alleges mismanagement prevented salmon subsistence harvest opportunity

Redoubt Reporter file photo. A sockeye salmon moves upstream toward spawning grounds in the Kenai River system. Though the sockeye run was strong this summer, the Kenai’s king salmon run was not, prompting fishery managers to restrict all king fishing in June and much of July. That included the Ninilchik Tribal Council’s community gillnet, which had been approved for use in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Though the net would have targeted sockeye, no subsistence fishing in the Kenai was allowed in the 2015 season to protect against any possible bycatch of kings, even after the river reopened to king fishing in July.

Redoubt Reporter file photo. A sockeye salmon moves upstream toward spawning grounds in the Kenai River system. Though the sockeye run was strong this summer, the Kenai’s king salmon run was not, prompting fishery managers to restrict all king fishing in June and much of July. That included the Ninilchik Tribal Council’s community gillnet, which had been approved for use in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Though the net would have targeted sockeye, no subsistence fishing in the Kenai was allowed in the 2015 season to protect against any possible bycatch of kings, even after the river reopened to king fishing in July.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The summer of 2015 was a tough one for many anglers on the Kenai River, with a conservation concern over king salmon prompting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the river to king fishing throughout the June early run and for most of the July late run. When the ban was lifted July 24, as it looked like kings were reaching their optimum escapement goals after all, many happy anglers took to the river.

But not residents of Ninilchik seeking their federal subsistence salmon harvest. They continued to sit high and dry.

The Ninilchik Tribal Council contends that the federal government’s slow response and inefficient processes denied them their federally mandated subsistence salmon harvest in the Kenai River last summer, and nearly cost them their harvest in the Kasilof River, as well.

The council filed suit Oct. 23 against representatives of the Federal Subsistence Board, the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to provide an opportunity for their members to conduct their subsistence harvest allotted to them by law under the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act.

“The tribe is really trying to have their subsistence rights, which are guaranteed them by ANILCA, recognized so that they can fish and get allocations of salmon that they are under federal law entitled to. So the lawsuit itself is more of an injunctive case seeking to ensure that in this upcoming fishing season, in 2016, the tribe is able to do this,” said Anna Crary, co-council representing the tribe in the case, with Landye Bennett Blumstein law firm in Anchorage.

The state of Alaska doesn’t recognize a rural-resident priority on fish and game resources, so the federally mandated subsistence programs are conducted on federally mandated lands and waters in the state. On the Kenai Peninsula, residents of Ninilchik, Cooper Landing and Hope qualify for federal subsistence harvests, and are allowed to conduct those activities on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. On the Kenai River, that puts them near the Russian River area.

In the past, the Ninilchik residents have utilized hooks and bait or dip nets, but say those methods haven’t met their subsistence needs. In January, the Federal Subsistence Board approved the council’s request to operate a community gillnet in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, over the objections of federal and state fishery managers who said the nets would be indiscriminate and could catch sensitive species — such as kings or trout — even though sockeye were to be the target.

The federal subsistence fishing season runs from June 15 to Aug. 15. On May 27 the tribe submitted an operational plan for the community subsistence gillnet fisheries in the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, as it is required to do. On June 9, refuge in-season fishery manager Jeffry Anderson told the tribe he was preparing an emergency closure of the fishery to conserve the struggling early run kings. The closure was issued June 17.

On June 30, the Kenai’s early king run met its optimal escapement goal. Both the refuge and Alaska Department of Fish and Game continued their fishing restrictions into July to protect the July late run of kings, as well.

The conservation measure itself isn’t the source of the complaint, Crary said.

“The fact that even when other sport fisheries were liberalized the subsistence fishery remained closed,” she said.

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Federal subsistence rural designations in Alaska see revisions

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

A few areas of the Kenai Peninsula are returning to rural status in the eyes of the federal subsistence management program, which could allow residents access to federally managed hunting and fishing opportunities.

Friday, the Federal Subsistence Board announced a change to the way rural vs. nonrural areas of Alaska are determined and the reversal of certain designations made in 2007.

In the past, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior determined rural status in Alaska and had to consider several factors — population, income and aggregation of communities — and the data was required to be reviewed every 10 years. The process was inefficient and didn’t take into account the vast differences between regions of Alaska, said Deborah Coble, subsistence outreach coordinator in Alaska, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It was so cumbersome on how to gather that data, which data to gather, and then, of course, the decennial review. So now the secretaries have allowed the Federal Subsistence Board to make the decisions for rural independently,” Coble said.

As of Friday, that process has been scrapped. The new criteria by which those determinations are made has yet to be written, but the process, by design, is more inclusive. Instead of determining which areas of the state qualify as rural, the Federal Subsistence Board will now determine which areas are not rural. Everything not determined nonrural will be considered rural, unless specifically decided otherwise.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Homer and its surrounding area — Anchor Point, Kachemak City and Fritz Creek — are designated nonrural. Kenai and its neighboring areas —Soldotna, Sterling, Nikiski, Salamatof, Kalifornsky, Kasilof and Clam Gulch — also are nonrural. The rural status of Ninilchik, Cooper Landing and Hope remains unchanged. But a few areas that were designated as nonrural in 2007 are returning to their rural status. On the central peninsula, an area to the north of Sterling is once again rural, and on the southern peninsula, the North Fork Road and Fritz Creek East areas are once again rural.

The new criteria is expected to be drafted by January, but regardless of those specifics, the process itself is expected to involve more local input than the previous method.

“The big deal on that one was that the board will more than likely give deference to the regional advisory councils, and the reason why that is important is because it will take into consideration the regional differences,” Coble said. “Like Southeast — what’s important to them and what works for them as far as customary and traditional use and subsistence hunting and fishing, is completely different from what they would use in the Seward Peninsula and North Slope. Whereas before it was just kind of a blanket deal, now they can break it down into the 10 different regions.”

Without seeing what the new criteria will entail, Coble can’t say whether the determining factors in rural vs. nonrural designations will be tailored to the unique characteristics of each region to the state, but she said it’s possible.

“The board is going to give deference to the regional advisory councils, the regional advisory councils seek information from the public within their region, and so each region could come up with something completely different. They’d push those recommendations to the board and what the board ultimately decides will happen in January,” she said.

The decision to return rural status to pre-2007 boundaries goes into effect Dec. 19, unless significant adverse comment is received by the comment deadline of Dec. 4. The decision to place rural vs. nonrural designations in the hands of the Federal Subsistence Board became effective Nov. 4.

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Firsthand egg take on fishing knowledge —  Students learn about life cycle in school salmon program

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Addison Havrilla, a third grader from Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, touches a coho salmon during the annual “egg-take,” which took place along the bank of Bear Creek near Seward last Tuesday and the Anchor River last Wednesday. The events were part of the “Salmon in the Classroom” program, presented by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education program and the Kenai Peninsula School.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Addison Havrilla, a third grader from Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, touches a coho salmon during the annual “egg-take,” which took place along the bank of Bear Creek near Seward last Tuesday and the Anchor River last Wednesday. The events were part of the “Salmon in the Classroom” program, presented by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education program and the Kenai Peninsula School.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

“Why don’t salmon have eyelids?” It may sound like the start of a joke but was a real question, one of many asked and answered during this year’s Salmon in the Classroom program, presented by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education program and the Kenai Peninsula School District. The program took place along the banks of Bear Creek near Seward on Oct. 6 and the Anchor River on Oct. 7.

For the record, the answer is because they live in a liquid environment, so their eyes don’t dry out.

That’s a concept some of the students participating had never considered, which is partially the point of the program — to get kids thinking about the aquatic animals that many have spent their lives around, yet never really learned the basics about.

“It’s cute some of the things that they think and say when we start going over salmon identification, biology, life cycles and habitat requirements,” said Jenny Cope, a Fish and Game sportfish biologist from the Soldotna office.

During the course of the two-day egg take, Cope said that she hears just about every question imaginable, this year from about 300 students at Bear Creek and 400 at the Anchor River, as well as some reasonably well-thought-out, though still incorrect, answers to her own queries.

“No, it’s not fertilizer the male puts on the eggs,” she said at the Anchor Point location. “No, it’s milt with a ‘T,’ not milk that comes out of the males,” she corrected another. “Yes, there is a king salmon, but no, there is no queen salmon,” she added later.

While the kids were a little unclear how it all worked at the beginning of the day, seeing — and for a lucky few students — feeling how the process of salmon egg fertilization works became as clear as crystal creek water.

“We hope that this is memorable for them,” Cope said.

What wouldn’t be memorable about seeing a plump-bellied, ripe and ready-to-spawn female coho salmon sliced open and her thousands of fluorescent pink eggs plopped into a clear plastic bucket, followed by a crimson-colored male fish massaged down his large abdomen until he squirts a creamy stream of milt onto the eggs.

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Crown jewel of king salmon sonar — Advancements make for best ever year counting kings in the Kenai

Image courtesy of Jim Miller, Alaska. Department of Fish and Game A screen shot of the ARIS sonar interface shows fish images picked up by sonar in the Kenai River and counted by technicians to track the king salmon escapement in the river.

Image courtesy of Jim Miller, Alaska. Department of Fish and Game
A screen shot of the ARIS sonar interface shows fish images picked up by sonar in the Kenai River and counted by technicians to track the king salmon escapement in the river.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The black computer screen lit up with blueish flashes moving across the window. It looked like a maternity ultrasound, but the images weren’t depicting the developing limbs of a baby. Clear as day — or clear as night with a high-powered flashlight — the display showed fish swimming by.

“When we went from split beam to DIDSON it was like turning a flashlight on underwater because you could ‘see’ so much more. You could make out what was going on so it was more than just these funny squiggly lines,” said Jim Miller, Kenai chinook sonar project biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The difference in the king salmon sonar program in the Kenai River 10 years ago to today isn’t quite “I-was-blind-but-now-I-see” biblically dramatic, but the advancement is revelatory.

When Miller started in Alaska’s salmon-counting sonar program in 1992 on the Nushagak River, Bendix sonar was the technology of the day. The interface spat out data on a paper tape and displayed the echoes bounced off the fish on a tiny oscilloscope screen.

“You could see the blips on the oscilloscope as the fish went by and that’s all you had — a blip on an oscilloscope and a tickertape,” Miller said.

On the Kenai, king counting used to be done with split-beam sonar. The echoes from the low-frequency sound waves appeared on a computer screen as a series of dots in patterns called fish traces. Technicians would count the fish traces to determine the number of fish passing by, and use the pattern of echoes to determine whether it was a larger fish — a king salmon — or something smaller, such as a sockeye.

“And then split beam, you had an echogram where you could see squiggles of fish going through. They were just squiggles, but you get the ‘S’ shape to them so they look like a fish swimming through,” Miller said.

While S-shaped squiggles were an improvement, split-beam left a lot to be desired. It was difficult to differentiate kings from other fish, and to tell fish apart when swimming next to each other.

The sonar location, too, was a challenge. At River Mile 8.6, it was close enough to the river mouth that water levels were tidally influenced. At higher water fish could swim behind the transducers and be missed. It was assumed that kings stuck to the deeper water midriver while sockeye preferred to hug the shore, but biologists eventually realized that wasn’t always the case at that site, with water levels and currents being variable.

Plus, the site was continually plagued by debris.

“On the outgoing tide was the possibility of damaging your gear because of the big trees. At the end of last season we actually had a huge tree come down and hook onto this sonar and pull it downstream about a half mile and snap the cable. The only reason we were able to retrieve it is because the guy on shift saw it going down and so he jumped in the boat and followed it,” Miller said.

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Can catch, release catch on? Guides advocate for voluntarily avoiding harvest

Photo courtesy of Greg Brush. Kenai River fishing guide Greg Brush and a client pose with a 55.5-by-34-inch king salmon, estimated at 80 pounds or more. Brush will no longer allow kings in his boat. His Kenai king trips are catch and release only.

Photo courtesy of Greg Brush. Kenai River fishing guide Greg Brush and a client pose with a 55.5-by-34-inch king salmon, estimated at 80 pounds or more. Brush will no longer allow kings in his boat. His Kenai king trips are catch and release only.

Editor’s note: Mark Wackler was misnamed in the original version of this story. The Redoubt Reporter apologizes for the error.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For a sportfishing guide on the fabled Kenai River, having a client wrestle a monster king salmon to the side of the boat — one of the 50-, 60-, 70-pound or bigger fish for which the river became famous — is a dream scenario.

These days, though, it’s much more frequently a dream than reality, as Kenai king salmon runs have struggled in low abundance in recent years. And for an increasing number of guides concerned about the shrinking number and sizes of kings in recent years, that dream scenario becomes a nightmare if the king is then bonked to kingdom come and hauled into the boat.

Catch and release king fishing is nothing new for kings on the Kenai. Some anglers prefer the fish’s fight to its flesh. Some guides throughout the years have counseled that choice to clients, as well. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has the ability to make that choice for all anglers as a conservation-minded management strategy to restrict harvest without completely shutting down fishing. But compared to what has been the norm — boat ’em and bonk ’em, and post pictures of exultant, exhausted fishermen straining to boost their massive king carcass up for the camera — catch and release is the quiet, uncelebrated outlier.

Fishing guides Mark Wackler and Greg Brush are trying to turn up that volume. They’ve both enacted catch-and-release-only policies for any Kenai River kings and are agitating for other guides to do the same.

“The last couple years I’ve taken a hard stance of educating the people prior to the charter and saying, ‘Kenai kings are struggling right now, we’re in a period of low abundance and there just aren’t as many as there used to be, and if you king fish on the Kenai with me or my guides, we do nothing but catch and release,’” said Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service.

Both came to their policies over years of guiding on the Kenai, having pursued kings the same way many do.

“I went 15 years of guiding king salmon and killing 99 percent of them. There seemed to be plenty of fish, and I think I’m in the majority,” said Wackler, of Alaska Fishing with Mark Wackler, who started guiding when he was 16 and has been at it about 20 years now. “It’s been advertised as a meat fishery. You see everybody’s website, they’re holding up a 60-, 70-pounder on the front of their boat, dead as can be. That’s just what we did and we never really thought about it, unfortunately. In hindsight, I wish we did think about it and realized just how precious these really big ones were.”

The more the kings have struggled, the more he’s struggled with the thought of any of them landing on his boat. Midseason three years ago Wackler decided things had to change.

“I remember killing three 35- to 40-pound hens and looking at them in the box and just having this sick feeling and not happy with myself. I remember it like it was yesterday, I remember that moment thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this again. There’s no way,’” he said.

Brush has guided on the Kenai for 26 years, having moved to the area sight unseen just for the opportunity to do so.

“We were young and naïve and it was great fishing for the biggest kings in the world, and we took it for granted. We bonked them and pulled them out and said, ‘This is what the limit is? OK,’” he said.

He reached his limit slaying kings about five years ago, after seeing the fishery dwindle.

“There’s guides out there and sportfishermen, laypeople that will grumble for 10 hours straight about what it used to be and how bad it is and, ‘I can’t believe it,’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. And they finally catch one and what do they do? Pull it right out of the gene pool. It’s ludicrous craziness,” he said.

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Slow but scenic — King fishing snags in Kasilof, doesn’t dampen experience

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Jeremy Kihlstadius, of Anchorage, attempts to land a king salmon while fishing the Kasilof River on Saturday. The fish broke off before he banked it, and not many others were caught that day.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Jeremy Kihlstadius, of Anchorage, attempts to land a king salmon while fishing the Kasilof River on Saturday. The fish broke off before he banked it, and not many others were caught that day.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Even an eagle, watching anglers with its wide golden eyes from the top of a spruce along the bank of the Kasilof River, seemed to be losing its patience Saturday. “Kikikikikiki,” it complained from its perch, perhaps tired of waiting for a salmon carcass to pick clean. Some years, the smooth, cobbled shoreline of Crooked Creek State Recreation Area is scattered with the pink-meated skeletons of filleted fish, the bright silver heads still attached.

Not this year.

“I’ve only seen one king caught all day,” said Lisa Long, of Anchorage, after hours of whipping at the turquoise water, hoping something would bite the fluorescent bead and hook at the end of her line.

Long and her partner, Darrell Suzuki, of Sterling, had come down midweek, and while they said that initially the salmon bite was bumping, it slowed as the weekend drew near.

“We saw a lot caught on Thursday, then not too many Friday,” she said.

Of the fish being caught, Long said they were primarily kings, both wild and hatchery-raised, the latter identified by their lack of an adipose fin — the tiny, fleshy fin located on the back between the dorsal fin and tail on wild fish.

According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations, Kasilof wild king salmon can only be retained on Saturdays, and must be released from Sunday through Friday.

“My other half (Suzuki) caught and banked two, a 20- and 30-pounder, during the week, but they were wild fish so he had to release them,” Long said.

While still a little early for sockeye salmon, Long said she had seen a few caught, but not more than a handful.

“I saw maybe two reds caught on Thursday and one on Friday and none so far today,” she said.

Despite the slow fishing, Long said that the Kasilof River still is an annual favorite of her summer fishing forays.

“I’ve come here every year since 2011 and my partner has come his whole life. We come for steelhead first, then come back for kings, and we’ll base out of here to fish Deep Creek and the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers,” she said.

These big three southern streams are a little more difficult to fish, though, according to Long.

“I like this spot better. It’s nice, calm water, with flat river beds so you don’t have to worry about footing, and we’re usually successful,” she said.

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Cast aside — Bill to prioritize personal-use fishery snags in committee

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. Dip-netters ply the waters at the mouth of the Kasilof River during the annual personal-use fishery.

Redoubt Reporter file photos by Joseph Robertia. Dip-netters ply the waters at the mouth of the Kasilof River during the annual personal-use fishery.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

A bill that would require a management priority on subsistence and personal-use fisheries in Alaska did not get priority treatment in the House Fisheries Committee on April 7. The committee heard a presentation on the bill, but Chairwoman Louise Stutes announced from the outset that no testimony would be taken and the bill would be held in committee.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, requires that subsistence and personal-use fisheries be considered ahead of sport, recreational and commercial fishing interests in times of resource scarcity.

“HB 110 provides guidance to the Board of Fisheries when they’re making management decisions for fisheries, requiring them to make a decision with the priority first for subsistence, and second for personal use, before making any decisions for closures or reduction in catch limits or anything else, to make a management or escapement goal,” said Darrell Breese, a staffer for Rep. Neuman.

Breese said that the bill does not require that subsistence and personal-use fishing be allowed to continue if managers decide a fish stock needs to be spared fishing pressure altogether.

“HB 110 in no way prohibits the Board of Fisheries in making decisions for management to close personal-use fisheries altogether,” Breese said. “That is still an option to them if the management and the fish stock and the return is not significant enough to support the fisheries.”

The purpose of HB 110, Breese explained, is to provide for Alaskans who are providing for their families.

“Personal use and subsistence are the only two Alaska resident-only fisheries,” he said. “All others are fisheries allow anyone from anywhere to come and fish. These fisheries are geared for people who are putting food on their tables, putting food in their freezers, and feeding their families. … This bill simply says, ‘OK, we need to make sure that the people of Alaska can get fish to feed their families.’”

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