Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify that the 36-hour mandatory window for the 2016 Upper Subdistrict set gillnet commercial fishing season will begin between 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. Friday.
Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet will be somewhat freer to fish at the outset of the 2016 season thanks to a larger projected king salmon run.
For the past few years, Alaska Department of Fish & Game commercial fisheries managers have had to work around restrictions on their fisheries because of low king salmon runs to the stream systems across Upper Cook Inlet. However, with a projected late-run return of 30,000 king salmon to the Kenai River and improved runs to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers, managers will be able to operate under normal restrictions, according to the 2016 Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries outlook.
“This will be the first year we’ve had the luxury of operating those fisheries without the restrictions,” said Pat Shields, the area management biologists for the Commercial Fisheries Division in Soldotna.
For the first time in three years, setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict will be managed by the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan, restricted only by inseason assessments of sockeye salmon runs and the escapements of late-run kings to the Kenai. In the past, they have been constricted by the low projected run of king salmon to the Kenai River, limiting the number of hours they can fish.
This year, they will be able to operate with an additional 84 hours of fishing each week, with a mandatory 36-hour closure each week beginning between 7 p.m. Thursdays and 7 a.m. Fridays, Shields said. The season is set to open June 27 unless opened earlier by emergency order, based on an inriver estimate of 50,000 Kasilof River sockeye salmon before the opener. The earliest it could open would be June 20, according to the outlook.
As the season progresses, managers will be carefully watching both the number of sockeye salmon and king salmon in the rivers.
“What we’ll do is watch the king salmon numbers as they come in each day in July, and we’ll plan our strategy for how to fish based on the combination of those two sets of numbers,” Shields said.
Additionally, commercial setnetters in the Northern District of Cook Inlet will be able to target king salmon again at the season opening.
King salmon escapements in the Northern District, which includes all of Cook Inlet north of Boulder Point, have improved in the last few years. More king salmon have been returning to the to the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers as well, and Fish & Game is willing to open up the fishery as well. Shields said it is a relatively limited fishery targeting kings specifically early in the season, with limited fishing periods and fewer nets allowed.
The commercial setnet fishery in the Northern District will open with four fishing periods in the 2016 season: May 30, June 3, June 13 and June 20, according to the outlook. After June 27, there will be two 12-hour fishing periods per week with a full complement of gear with at least 600 feet between nets.
However, the area from the wood chip dock to the Susitna River will remain closed, reducing the king salmon harvest by approximately half, and the Deshka River will be watched closely. Any closures will come from inseason counts, according to the outlook.
The drift gillnet fishery will open by the third Monday in June or June 19, whichever is later. There will be an additional 12-hour fishing period in the Expanded Kenai and Expanded Kasilof sections and Drift Gillnet Area 1 because the Kenai River sockeye run is projected to be greater than 2.3 million fish, according to the outlook.
Between July 16 and July 31, there will be an additional 12-hour fishing period each week in the Expanded Kenai, Expanded Kasilof and Anchor Point sections, and no additional restrictions on the remaining regular 12-hour fishing period.
One of the challenges of managing this season will be balancing the king run, which is projected to be above the 22,500 target set in the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan, with the sockeye salmon run. A larger than average sockeye return is projected for this year — 7.1 million total, with a 4.1 million commercial fishery harvest, 1.2 million more than the 10-year average annual harvest.
Shields said the department has a number of tools for managing the sockeye overescapement if the fisheries are restricted by emergency order again.
“It’ll be an interesting year to watch,” Shields said. “Everybody will be watching those two numbers really closely. Our strategy and challenge here will be how many of those extra (setnet) hours will we need to use to keep the sockeye salmon escapement in check.”
Last year, both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers saw large overescapements of sockeye salmon, partially due to the closures of the setnet fishery. Managers tried to control the escapement by opening up the drift gillnet fleet for more fishing, which worked “moderately well,” Shields said.
“It’s going to put the department in a difficult position — how far do you let the sockeye salmon run go above your escapement objective while you still maintain all the provisions in the (management) plan?” Shields said.
One option the managers have is to discuss going outside the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan to control escapement, which has been done before. It is a serious decision and requires input from the upper echelons of Fish & Game, but it was done as recently as last year, Shields said. A proviso in the management plan allows Fish & Game to deviate from the management plan to make their escapement goals, he said.
However, that doesn’t mean the decisions are always clear. Shields said the decisions to go outside the management plans often generate disagreements within the department and commentary from the public.
“When you start exceeding (escapement goals) by quite a bit on the upper end, you see a likelihood for smaller returns,” Shields said. “I wished it was a square decision with nice straight 90-degree corners, but sometimes the lines get a little fuzzy.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.