Alaska Department of Fish and Game logo. (Graphic by Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Alaska Department of Fish and Game logo. (Graphic by Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Board of Fisheries approves Kenai River king salmon action plan

The plan adds bait restrictions for in-river fisheries, doubles the sport bag limit for sockeye salmon, and adds a swath of restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery

The State Board of Fisheries in a 4-3 vote on Friday approved an action plan for the recovery of Kenai River late-run king salmon that adds bait restrictions for in-river fisheries, doubles the sport bag limit for sockeye salmon, and adds a swath of restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery while setting a new threshold for possible opportunity at 14,250 large kings.

The plan, per the draft document included with meeting information for the board’s Upper Cook Inlet Meeting in Anchorage, is in effect each year between June 20 and Aug. 15, and directs management of impacted fisheries by the State Department of Fish and Game until the recovery goal — originally set to match the board-set Optimal Escapement Goal of 15,000-30,000 large king salmon until the lower bound was dropped to 14,250 — is met or exceeded in three consecutive years with at least one of those years seeing a count above 18,000, among other considerations.

Large king salmon are greater than 34 inches long from mid-eye to tail fork.

Board member Märit Carlson-Van Dort, who led much of the discussion on Friday and submitted the draft action plan that became the document ultimately supported by the board, said the intention of the plan is to recover to “a sustained yield” and “have the pain felt by all.”

“Sustained yield means to me that we will provide the stewardship needed to keep replenishable resources available at the highest possible level,” she said.

To that end, she pushed to continue adhering to the OEG, the 15,000-30,000 large king goal, as opposed to allowing opportunity below its lower bound and above the sustainable escapement goal of 13,500-27,000 large kings that is set by the department.

“The data that has been presented at this meeting … all indicates that the low end of the current SEG, under recent poor productivity conditions, does not and will not achieve the objective of sustained yield,” she said. “Set a recovery goal range, within 15,000-30,000, with an emphasis on reaching sustained maximum yield, to try and optimize the potential for recovery of the Kenai River late-run king salmon.”

For the sport fishery, retention of king salmon is prohibited, as was implemented in regulation last year by emergency order in response to a preseason projected run of large king salmon that fell below the 15,000 fish goal.

Other measures implemented last season via emergency orders in the sport fishery are also included in the plan, such as gear limits restricting the use of bait between July 1 and Aug. 15 and limiting fishers to one unbaited, single-hook, artificial lure while fishing on the Kenai River downstream of the outlet of Skilak Lake.

The bag limit for Kenai River sockeye salmon in the sport fishery is doubled to six per day and 12 in possession, similarly echoing emergency orders from the 2023 season.

The plan includes language that allows the department to open sport fishing to retention of king salmon under 34 inches in length.

Carlson-Van Dort said she included that language to allow liberalized sport fishing but did not specify when that opportunity should be allowed to “allow the department to have some latitude.” Such an opportunity, she said, should come after the department has seen significant returns of king salmon.

“My intent would be that is certainly within the recovery goal,” she said.

Area closed to the Central District Drift fishery is increased to within 2 miles of the Kenai Peninsula shoreline.

The Central District set gillnet fishery, including the east side setnet fishery, will only see openings when the projected run, newly “including harvest and forecast error,” is greater than 14,250 large kings.

In addition to raising that requirement, the plan integrates several proposed ideas that ESSN members brought to the board hoping to see opportunity below the OEG.

If the ESSN were to see an opening, each setnet permit holder would be limited to one net — different from the originally proposed one net per permit — being “not more than 35 fathoms in length and 29 meshes in depth.” Openings will also be based on tides.

Potential openings are described in three windows.

If the preseason forecast with harvest and forecast error is greater than 14,250 large fish, “no more than” two eight-hour periods “may” be allowed between June 20 and June 30, with a 48-hour continuous closure covering much of the weekend.

If the inseason projection, also including harvest and forecast error, is greater than 14,250 large fish, four eight-hour periods may be allowed between July 15 and July 27, similarly with a required 48-hour closure on much of the weekend.

Another pair of possible openings with 48-hour closures may be permitted between July 28 and Aug. 15, if greater than 14,250 large kings are projected after harvest and forecast errors.

“All commercially harvested king salmon must be delivered only to a licensed shore based processor or floating processor,” the plan reads. From those locations, the king salmon will be “made available” for sampling by the department.

“Much of this language,” Carlson-Van Dort said, is borrowed from the action plan submitted by the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association — their plan would have allowed fishing with many of the same considerations to avoid harvest of king salmon, including avoiding low waters and operating with reduced time, area and gear, but at a much lower threshold of a projected 13,500 large kings.

In the Kenai and Kasilof river personal use dipnet fisheries, retention of kings is prohibited — as has been done repeatedly by emergency order in the past.

The Kasilof River personal use set gillnet fishery sees a reduction in net size, now each net may not exceed 10 fathoms in length, four and three-quarter inches in mesh size, and 29 meshes in depth.

Almost all deliberation on the plan by the board on Friday centered around whether or not to provide opportunity to the commercial setnet fisheries, which target sockeye salmon, when fewer than 15,000 king salmon are projected. The original draft of the plan by Carlson-Van Dort maintained that threshold, with the new addition of forecast and harvest error as well.

Board member Gerad Godfrey made two motions to drop the thresholds for potentially allowing openings for the commercial setnet fishery from 15,000, first to 13,500 and second to 14,250. The first was defeated in a 4-3 vote, the second passed in a separate 4-3 vote.

Speaking on the first proposed amendment, Godfrey said it was brought forward because the intention to “distribute the pain of the restrictions equally” isn’t what’s happening.

“The in-river users — the restrictions on them are not existential in nature,” he said.

In contrast, he said the conditions of the plan are “existential” for many commercial setnetting operations. He said that under the plan, where years may pass wholly without opportunity because of the non-targeted capture of king salmon, “many of those operations will cease to exist.”

“That, to me, is not an egalitarian approach by the board when distributing the pain equally,” he said. “That is problematic to me.”

Board Chair John Wood said that there isn’t a true semblance of parity when one fishery is “totally shut down” and unable to catch anything while the other continues fishing.

“They have come up with some ideas on restrictive fishing that will greatly diminish their take of kings to a point where, I don’t think, warrants shutting down the entire fishery,” Chair Wood said.

Godfrey pointed to the efforts and the testimony by members of the east side setnet fishery to create a proposed opportunity that minimizes impact on the king salmon as “compelling.” He said that allowing that limited opportunity would not be “a great detriment” to the recovery of the king stock.

“Those sockeyes are catchable, they’re harvestable when the numbers are met in river — they simply can’t fish them because they might catch a couple kings,” he said.

Board member Mike Wood said that the plan calls for an 88% reduction in nets and only 64 hours of sockeye salmon fishing where “nobody wants to catch a king.”

“What we’re talking here, when we’re talking about the burden sharing of the user groups, is a setnet fishery, being proposed here, that is now a fragment of what it has been historically,” Wood said.

That historical fishery, he said, “will never exist again.”

Carlson-Van Dort pushed back on the arguments for allowing opportunity below the OEG, repeating her statement that the testimony and data they were given show that runs of 13,500 king salmon aren’t enough to rebuild the stock.

She also said that sport guiding operations on the Kenai River have been affected and diminished by the closures.

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said that “under current ocean conditions,” the stock will not recover if it is consistently only hitting the lowest end of the SEG.

Board member Stan Zuray said because of the nature of the fisheries being impacted by the plan, equally distributing hurt isn’t possible. The question before the board, he said, is only recovery of the fish.

With recovery of the stock as the singular and paramount concern, Carlson-Van Dort said, harvest of kings needs to be “held to zero.” The commercial fisheries can’t do that, she said, and so shouldn’t fish until the goals are achieved.

“Their harvest will not be zero,” she said. “Unless there is not a single king in the river, it will not be zero.”

If commercial harvest is permitted, Carlson-Van Dort said, “there will be no one allowed to catch a Kenai River king ever again.”

The draft action plan approved by the board can be found as RC183 — “Member Carlson-VanDort Stock of Concern Action Plan” — in the Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet Meeting Information at adfg.alaska.gov.

This story was edited on Monday to correct details of the recovery goal spelled out in the newly approved action plan.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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