A year and half later, the Ninilchik Traditional Council may set its subsistence sockeye gillnet in the Kenai River in 2016.
On July 27, the Federal Subsistence Board approved a special action request from the council that asked for the subsistence gillnet’s operational plan be approved. Over the conservation concerns of the public, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the board approved the request 6-2.
“This successful outcome underscores years of efforts by the Tribe to operate this fishery,” reads a statement from NTC.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, permit allows the Ninilchik Traditional Council to harvest up to 2,000 sockeye, 50 king salmon, 100 Dolly Varden and 50 rainbow trout through August 15.
In its statement, NTC said this year’s improved king salmon runs should allay any worries that the gillnet will damage chinook stocks or take sockeye from commercial fishermen. There are plenty of fish to go around, it said, and the community gillnet harvests a negligible amount.
“Over 5,000 Chinook salmon have been harvested so far in the 2016 Kenai sport fisheries,” reads the statement. “NTC’s allowed harvest of 50 chinook is 1 percent of this harvest. The tribe’s 2016 harvest limit for 2,000 sockeye is far less that 1 percent of the total Kenai harvest. NTC’s fishery is carefully structured to be conservative and precautionary while catching salmon that are vital to its subsistence way of life.”
As of July 25, the Kenai River king salmon have returned with more vigor than the previous years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has counted 15,760 kings having escaped past sonar, nearly 2,000 more than the same time last year and nearly double that of 2014 and 2013. This meets the lower end of the 15,000-30,000-escapement goal.
ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten said he worries about potential impacts for the fish, fishermen and the federal board itself. ADFG has voiced concerns repeatedly about the gillnet.
“It just adds one more controversy in the mix,” said Cotten. “It’s a one year deal, relatively small number of fish, but it adds a wrinkle of controversy.”
After July 31, Kenai River management switches from escapement based to in river run total-based.
If this amount does not pass 22,500 king salmon, the commercial sockeye fishery endures more restrictions. Cotten said 50 fish are unlikely to make the difference, but fears it all the same.
Further, that the Federal Subsistence Board overrode the federal agency that manages the fishery in question unsettles Cotten.
“I remain confused about who should be making these calls on the behalf of the U.S. government in these decisions,” said Cotten. “I felt like USFWS should be given some deference when it’s the exact conservation unit they manage, and they weren’t given any at all.”
Local voices, which have been largely antagonistic to the idea since its inception, remain concerned about the health of king salmon stocks.
Tim Cashman, a member of the Soldotna city council and angler guide operating from Homer, said the tribe’s net remains a bad idea.
“I’ve yet to find anybody in favor,” said Cashman. “I do know the importance of a fishery that’s barely hanging on and barely making minimum escapement, to have these fish that have beaten all odds to get to spawning grounds. They beat the commercial nets, they beat sport fishermen, they beat the guides and they beat Mother Nature. And they’re being yarded out by a group that lives 50 miles away from us. If the people who manage our fishery are telling us this is a bad idea, it’s a bad idea.”
A LONG TIME COMING
The approval comes after a lengthy and heated battle involving hundreds of letters from the public asking the board to reconsider the gillnet, accusations of wrongdoing against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers, earlier special action requests, a lawsuit brought by the council against the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture and opposition from neighboring subsistence communities.
In January 2015, the Federal Subsistence Board voted 4-3 in favor of NTC’s proposal to hold a community subsistence gillnet for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.
State and federal biologists advised against the action at the time.
They claimed a subsistence gillnet, even if targeted for sockeye salmon, could endanger returns of king salmon, which had been on the downswing statewide since the beginning of the decade.
Within months, over 700 requests for reconsideration flooded the Office of Subsistence Management asking the federal board to overturn its decision to let a subsistence gillnet into the state’s most heavily used and heavily politicized river.
Several legislators submitted letters of their own, including Anchorage’s Rep. Les Gara and Sen. Bill Wielechowski.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, which is the federal land on which the Ninilchik Traditional Council proposed it put its gillnet. The USFWS was one of the parties represented on the Federal Subsistence Board that voted against approving the gillnet allowance.
The proposal required that the USFWS manager, Jeff Anderson, approve an operation plan before NTC be allowed to actually put the net into the water.
Though he approved the operational plan for the Kasilof River during the 2015 sockeye season, he denied the Kenai River plan.
NTC leadership was outraged and filed a special action request with the Federal Subsistence Board to force Anderson to approve the operational plan, similar to the one approved in 2016.
On July 29, 2015, the board denied the request, backing up the USFWS decision.
Ninilchik Tribal elder and Council President Greg Encelewski spared no venom describing how the council feels about Anderson’s management of the Kenai River gillnet.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” Encelewski said at the time. “It’s shameful and we’re disgusted.”
In response, the council filed a lawsuit against the board and secretaries of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Interior Sally Jewell.
Others jumped into the fray as time rolled on.
In April 2016, The Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community filed a proposal change in the 2017-2019 Federal Subsistence Board proposal book that would eliminate Ninilchik Traditional Council’s gillnet.
The gillnet, the Cooper Landing and Hope filers said, has a direct impact on them. Cooper Landing subsistence users are upriver of NTC and fish with dipnets.
“We maintain firmly that the Federal Subsistence Board’s approval, which allows Ninilchik to place a community gillnet in the Kenai River, aggrieves the federal subsistence priority and right of Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence users,” the proposal stated.
NTC filed its latest special action request while a judge was considering an injunction that would have forced USFWS to approve the net.
NTC’s attorney, Sky Starkey, said the group still plans to continue its lawsuit against USFWS.
We’re still weighing how to proceed,” said Starkey. “We believe that the FWS violated the subsistence priority of NTC in 2015.
This fishery was actually supposed to start on June 15. That would have allowed NTC to get the bulk of the sockeye run.
“What NTC wants is just whatever help the court might provide so that we don’t end up in the same situation next year.”
DJ Summers can be reached at email@example.com