Upper Cook Inlet’s east side setnetters may get more fishing time next season.
The Board of Fisheries passed two proposals Tuesday that relaxed some of the season restrictions on the east side set gillnet fishery, which operates in two sections between Ninilchik and Nikiski. The result is that fishermen may get an extra week in August and a subset of fishermen in North Kalifornsky Beach may get a few extra days in July.
The first proposal, the more controversial of the two, moved back the effective date for the one percent rule. The rule, applied separately to the Kasilof section and the Kenai section, automatically closed the fisheries when less than one percent of the season’s total sockeye harvest is taken in two consecutive periods after Aug. 1. Commercial fishermen argued that the rule was not based on science and prevented them from harvesting leftover sockeye and the pink salmon, contributing to overescapement. Sportfishing advocates argued that the rule protects coho salmon stocks, which overlap with the sockeye run and are managed primarily for sport use.
In a 4-3 vote, the board moved back the rule’s effective date from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game retains its emergency order authority to close the fishery before then.
Board member Sue Jeffrey amended the original proposal, which eliminated the one percent rule entirely, to simply move back the effective date. She said it fit within allocation criteria and was a matter of opportunity.
“What this would provide is opportunity for those who fish who are locals who want to harvest this amount of sockeye … it’s not going to be the whole fleet here,” she said. “It would just be a scaled down amount of people and it would benefit the processors and those who want to harvest the pinks and the sockeye.”
Most of the concern surrounding the proposal was for coho stocks. Setnetters are allowed to harvest any type of Pacific salmon under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits, but coho are primarily harvested by sportfishermen in Cook Inlet. Fish and Game staff estimated at the Tuesday meeting that about 3 percent of the coho harvest is taken by commercial fishermen.
There hasn’t been a definitive study about coho harvest and migration on the Kenai River since 2004, said area sportfish research biologist Robert Begich. Biologists estimate current total harvest and exploitation rate in the middle to high 50 percentile range.
King salmon are also still moving into the Kenai River at the time settnetters stand to gain — the department typically stops counting kings around Aug. 19 or 20. About 16 percent of the run typically comes in after Aug. 1, Begich said.
Board member Reed Morisky said due to the concern about kings and coho, he supported the status quo for the one percent rule.
“I believe there’s fishing enough for everyone in the current one percent scenario,” he said.
Board chairman John Jensen said additional openings at the end of a commercial fishing season can help fishermen break even on a season after paying their bills, and moving back the rule would effectively only give the fishermen two additional 12-hour fishing periods in the season. That still leaves a lot of hours for coho to escape into the river, he said. Jensen also said the balance between the fisheries is important to the economy of Upper Cook Inlet and that he supports the change.
“Our job … is to keep the salmon populations healthy, and second, to provide opportunity, and then we divide allocation,” he said. “What we’re doing here is a small change but I think it’s a good change.”
Changing the date of the one percent rule also has implications for the drift gillnet fleet. They operate under their own version of the one percent rule, but if both the Kenai and Kasilof sections are closed, drifters are pushed to only the western side of Cook Inlet.
The board also passed a proposal allowing managers to open the setnet fishery on North Kalifornsky Beach on July 8 in accordance with openings from the Kasilof section, even when the Kenai and East Foreland sections are not open. The area is technically part of the Kenai section.
Proposer Gary Hollier, who operates a setnet site in the North K-Beach area, said the area lost fishing time at the 1999 Board of Fisheries meeting and he has proposed the same change ever since. He also included a stipulation in his original proposal that would require all nets to be limited to 29 meshes deep. Although it’s not required by regulation, Hollier has long been a proponent of cutting net depth to allow king salmon to pass beneath, as it is commonly thought that kings swim deeper than sockeye. The goal was primarily to give North K-Beach setnet fishermen a chance to harvest more Kasilof sockeye, which circle north and pass along the beach back southward to enter the Kasilof River.
However, the board removed the 29-mesh depth requirement, allowing for all gear lengths to be used, before passing the proposal. Fish and Game didn’t have enough data to quantify if reducing net depth would decrease king salmon harvest, according to the staff comments.
Setnet fishermen who stack permits — the term for one person having and operating multiple limited entry permits under one name — are restricted to 29 mesh-deep nets on the second permit anyway, under regulations that were passed in 2014. Hollier said stacked permits may be common in the area, with nine families owning about 45 permits.
One of the main reasons board members Robert Ruffner and Al Cain supported the proposal was because of concerns over the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The one-mile square area near the mouth of the Kasilof River that is a last-ditch mechanism to help prevent overescapement of sockeye, puts a large number of commercial fishermen into a small area and can lead to gear and user conflicts. In answer to a question, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said it was hard to quantify whether passing the proposal would help reduce the use of the special harvest area, but it could.
The board passed the proposal 6-1, with Morisky voting against.