Board of Fish takes steps to prevent Kasilof terminal harvest area use

Managers, Board of Fisheries members and the public agree on at least one thing about the Kasilof River commercial fisheries management: Stay out of the terminal harvest area as much as possible.

The area, formally known as the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, is a one-mile square around the mouth of the river that fisheries managers use as a last-ditch tool to control sockeye salmon escapement into the river. Every limited commercial fisheries entry permit holder in Cook Inlet has the right to fish in it when Fish and Game opens it, and all the while, thousands of people are fishing in the personal-use dipnet fishery at the river mouth.

Not only is it potentially unsafe, it’s also less valuable, commercial fishermen have said.

“The closer the fish get to the river, they diminish in quality,” said Dan Anderson, a Homer-based drift gillnet fisherman, during a committee hearing Wednesday. “And it’s reflected into the pricing structure that processors offer.”

Board members repeatedly said they were concerned about excessive use and wanted to get regulations in place to make sockeye salmon harvest efficient enough to where it wouldn’t be used as much.

“The goal when you’er using the terminal harvest area is to bash down on escapement and get the heck out of there,” said board member Robert Ruffner during board deliberations Wednesday.

Still, it’s a shot at a lot of sockeye salmon that are typically worth more than $1 per pound to commercial fishermen, so many choose to participate. If managers open it, they want them to, to prevent overescapement into the Kasilof River system.

The board passed several proposals at its Upper Cook Inlet meeting Wednesday in an attempt to increase the odds that managers will stay out of the special harvest area.

First was a proposal exempting a part of the setnet fishery that occurs 600 feet or less from shore from additional hourly restrictions to the fishery. Depending on Kenai River late-run king salmon runs, the managers can only provide a certain number of extra fishing hours per week to setnetters in the Kasilof area.

However, now managers can open the 600-foot fishery without it applying to their hourly restrictions for the week. Commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said it could help keep the managers from having to open the terminal harvest area, which has happened in 2007, 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015, though it did not open in 2016.

It was never intended to be a regular management tool but has come into play more often in times of king salmon conservation concern, Shields said.

The 600-foot fishery has only been used in one year — 2015 — but showed a high sockeye to king ratio, about 500 sockeye for every king. Shields acknowledged it was only one year of data and left the decision up to the board, but said he thought the 600-foot fishery seemed promising.

“I appreciate this conversation,” Shields said. “I don’t know if this is the better answer or not. It seems to me it better meets more (the board’s) intent. … I wish I felt more comfortable in telling you all that yeah, this is definitely the way to go.”

One concern that came up was risk for Kenai River kings. On Tuesday, the board spent the entire afternoon overhauling the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan, including increasing hours and eliminating some of the paired restrictions for east side setnet fishermen to answer complaints from fishermen that the paired restrictions were unfair. Board member Israel Payton said he couldn’t support removing the hourly restrictions from the 600-foot fishery if it meant additional risk for Kenai kings or Kasilof kings.

“If this kicks in, to me, it might almost be a wash because you’re adding additional fishing time, even though you’re in king salmon conservation (restrictions),” he said. “… I think it’s kind of a neutral wash, because you’re increasing fishing time, because yes, you pull them out of the SHA, but now they have more fishing time and so they have more potential to catch more Kenai- and Kasilof-bound chinook.”

Payton also brought up concerns for the runs of Kasilof kings, which are not monitored inseason. For such a popular and accessible fishery, it didn’t make sense not to be monitoring that run. Ruffner and board member Reed Morisky expressed similar concerns.

Director the Division of Sportfish Tom Brookover said monitoring Kasilof kings had come up in discussions, but Fish and Game has limited funds available, especially with the state in a fiscal crisis and the previously appropriated funds for the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative running dry. He said the project was on Fish and Game’s radar, though.

“Up until now, (the Kasilof River has) been managed somewhat in concert with Kenai,” he said. “We’re looking at our budget. Kasilof is one of the projects on the list.”

The proposal for the 600-foot fishery passed 5-2, with Payton and Morisky voting against it.

The board also passed proposals clarifying language that fishermen with multiple permits could fish two nets in the special harvest area, allowing drift fishermen to carry more gear on their boats in the special harvest area and requiring all gear to be removed when the special harvest area is not open to commercial fishing.

In the committee meetings on the Kasilof issues and on later discussions related to restrictions on the drift fleet, sportfishing advocacy groups expressed concerns about the several decisions in the Upper Cook Inlet meeting so far to expand setnet fishing time. Kenai River Sportfishing Association fisheries consultant Kevin Delaney warned the board from going too far, calling it “death by 1,000 cuts.”

In a document sent out Wednesday, the association called the meeting one of the worst in 40 years.

“In the initial days of this Upper Cook Inlet meeting, this Board is systematically removing key elements of management plans that provide for successful sport fisheries for king and coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet, and the tremendous economic value that they sustain,” the document states.

The board concluded deliberations on Kasilof sockeye issues Wednesday and will resume Thursday with deliberations on drift gillnet restrictions.

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

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