A commercial drift gillnetting boat leaves the mouth of the Kasilof River at about 1 a.m. July 17, 2014 during an overnight fishing period in Kasilof, Alaska. (Clarion file photo)

A commercial drift gillnetting boat leaves the mouth of the Kasilof River at about 1 a.m. July 17, 2014 during an overnight fishing period in Kasilof, Alaska. (Clarion file photo)

Board of Fish adds 1 district-wide opener for drifters

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Board of Fisheries did not add an additional period, but added the option for one of the periods to be inlet-wide and to update an estimate on how many coho may be harvested in an inlet-wide period.

Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fleet will get a chance at 12 hours of fishing time inlet-wide in July, but no one is 100 percent happy about it.

For one, the drifters feel like it wasn’t enough. The Board of Fisheries approved an amended proposal at its Thursday meeting that states the commercial fishing managers may open up one fishing period between July 16 and July 31 in the Central District, where before they were restricted to only part of the district. Since they have been restricted to fishing in the corridors, which parallel the shore and keep the fishermen from being able to traverse the entire inlet, they say they haven’t been able to efficiently harvest sockeye salmon, leading to overescapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

“It’s token,” said Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

Many sportfishermen feel like the board is chipping away at the commercial fishing restrictions too much, reallocating Cook Inlet’s highly contested salmon populations to the commercial fishing fleet. Chief among the complaints is concern for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s coho salmon, which have been on the decline for at least the past decade. Sportfishermen in the valley say the drifters are blocking too many salmon from moving up into the northern streams, corking off the salmon populations and furthering the decline.

In the back of the room Thursday, sportfishermen shook their heads as the measure passed. Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the board’s decisions so far this meeting have not been good for sportfishermen.

The blame game washed back and forth on Wednesday, with Mat-Su Valley fishermen and officials blaming the sockeye and coho stock declines on the drift fishermen and the drift fishermen blaming the stock declines on conditions in the valley. The discussion was notably civil compared to previous years, but the disagreements were sharp.

It’s a long-standing conflict. In 2008, when Susitna sockeye salmon were designated a stock of concern, it triggered restrictions on the drift fleet intended to prevent harvest of northern-bound sockeye and coho salmon as they passed through the Cook Inlet. Although drift fishermen have never denied that they harvest northern-bound sockeye and coho, they say the decline is because of poor production due to shallow lakes in the valley, widespread predation by invasive northern pike and pathogens in the water that affect salmon.

In 2011, the Board of Fisheries instituted what drift fishermen refer to as a corridor and Mat-Su and Northern Cook Inlet district commercial set gillnet fishermen have referred to as a conservation corridor. At the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the restrictions on the fishing areas were tightened, and the drifters were in the corridor for almost all their regular periods.

The effectiveness of the corridor in conserving northern-bound sockeye and coho was a question on Thursday, though. The board spent the first chunk of its day grilling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff on science and data related to coho salmon, both in the Susitna system and being harvested by the drift fleet.

No one debated that the corridors effectively allowed salmon to move north — the drift fleet is less efficient when operating in the corridors, which is the point. However, swimming beside the northern-bound sockeye and coho in the Central District are Kenai-and Kasilof-bound sockeye, which return in larger numbers and which the drift fleet says have overescaped for the past several years.

Mat-Su Valley advocates say the drift fishermen already get more salmon than everybody else.

“In reality, the drift fleet gets first opportunity at the fish,” said Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee chairman Andy Couch in the committee Wednesday. “… They have to swim through the area the drift fleet is in. (The drifters) get to use more net than everybody else, they can move up and down through 60 miles of the inlet, and if you look at their harvests, they are the user group that harvests the most sockeye salmon, the most coho salmon, the most chum salmon, the most pink salmon.”

The board was torn 4-3 on the amended proposal, with board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voting against it. The final accepted proposal was an amendment by board member Robert Ruffner, which offered significantly fewer liberalizations to the drift fleet than the original proposal. Still, discussion over the nature of the reallocation went back and forth.

Payton said providing more fish to the drift fleet was reallocating them away from the Mat-Su sportfishermen, the Northern Cook Inlet district setnetters, the Fish Creek personal-use fishery and from subsistence users further up in the northern Cook Inlet drainages. Morisky referenced a discussion from the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer over whether to liberalize fishing regulations on the winter king salmon fishery in Kachemak Bay, saying that Cook Inlet’s salmon fishery was fully allocated already.

“There’s talk about whose fish that might be, and some of the same folks that are saying we need a little bit more, we need a little bit less, they are someone else’s fish,” he said. “This is a fully allocated fishery, and I believe the current management plan fairly allocates the fishery at this present time.”

In answer to a question from Ruffner Thursday, commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields estimated that if the opener were district-wide rather than restricted to a section of the inlet, the coho harvest might increase by between 2,500 and 5,000 fish. The next day, however, he corrected himself and said the coho catch may stay level or even decrease. If the sockeye run is late, it could also coincide with an on-time coho run, which could increase harvest on coho, said commercial fisheries salmon and herring management coordinator Tim Baker, in answer to a question from the board.

Board chairman John Jensen and member Sue Jeffrey said they thought it was fair to offer the commercial fishermen more time. Jeffrey said the commercial fishermen had harvested the coho runs in the past and the board should review regulations that have only been in place for a relatively short time. Jensen said he would have liked to see more time given to the commercial fishery but he supported what he called “a minuscule change.”

“It will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up,” he said. “… (Commercial guides) are trying to make a living off the fish, the commercial guys are trying to make a living off the fish, and we’re still trying to provide opportunities for those people who want to go out and catch their dinner.”

Because board member Orville Huntington had to leave briefly, the board suspended deliberations on drift gillnet fishery issues and picked up committee discussions on Northern Cook Inlet sportfishing issues and assorted commercial issues. The board will resume deliberations Friday morning.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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