In 2012 the Ninilchik-to-Boulder Point setnet fishery was closed for much of the season to conserve king salmon. 2013 and 2014 saw more of the same, though fishery managers handled the handicap with a bit more finesse, which allowed for meaningful sockeye harvests. We should assume 2015 will be a continuation of this problem. Is there anything you and I can do to help?
Yes. Setnetters can make two significant adjustments — fish “shallower” nets and release live kings. By regulation a setnet can be 45 meshes deep. Most web measures between 5 inches and 5 1/4 inches “stretched.” That means if the web is pulled tight from corks to leads a net would be 18-feet, 8-inches deep. Nets don’t “fish” in a stretched position because hanging in the water they have only the leadline pulling against the corkline. In their fishing posture the web forms a diamond shape, something like 4 1/4-inches tall by 2 1/4-inches wide. That shape fits nicely over a sockeye salmon head, which has a longer dimension measured from the top of its head to its throat than measured between the gills.
At slack tide a 45-mesh-deep setnet might hang about 16 feet deep. A 29-mesh-deep net would hang about 10 feet deep. This 6-foot difference during slack tide is significant in the king salmon world because king salmon swim near the bottom while sockeye salmon travel near the surface. Any setnetter with rope-burnt biceps can tell you the guy who “runs” the corkline picks way more fish than the guy who “runs” the leads. The same salt knows that some of the most productive king fishing happens near slack tide and kings caught then are often near the lead line.
Slack tide lasts for varying amounts of time in various locations. What depth do nets reach when the tide is running? Some gurus say shallower nets fish deeper than deep nets because they have less web to create drag in the current. If setnetters thought that, they would have been fishing 29-mesh-deep nets long ago. A couple things seems certain: when the tide is running, net depth is somewhat dependant on the weight of the leadline and 29-mesh-deep nets favor king salmon escapement at slack tide. Though running tides may not raise 29-mesh-deep leadlines as much as 45-mesh-deep leadlines, the 29-mesh nets do have a six-foot head start.
We’ve been experimenting with a stationary seine device I call a Selective Harvest Module (SHM). We were permitted to test this device in 2013 and found that it worked but had numerous needs for improvement. In 2014, we had hoped to make some of those changes but realized that 29-mesh-deep nets offered a way faster change that could lead to significant savings of king salmon. So we dedicated our spring preparations with converting to 29-mesh nets and didn’t have time to also make adaptations to the SHM.
The final method for conserving king salmon is the simplest. If they are alive, just let them go. Fellow setnetters laugh at me and say they are catching the kings we release. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. I do know that a king kept is a king dead. Kings that swim away may spawn. Over many years of fishing I have seen kings escape one net and a short time later a similar sized king was caught in a nearby net. On the other hand we have released perfectly healthy-looking kings and not caught them again. Since we have a large site and kings are so few recently, we probably would have noticed recatching one. We found in 2014 that about half of the kings we caught were healthy enough to release.
Striving to rebuild king salmon populations isn’t about whether or not setnetters have the right to catch kings. It’s about whether the next generations know what a king looks like.