Board rewrites Kenai late-run king plan

After a day of heavy clashes and divided votes, the Board of Fisheries reformed late-run king salmon management on the Kenai River to loosen restrictions a little more for east side setnetters.

The Board of Fisheries spent Tuesday afternoon painstakingly, paragraph by paragraph, going through the management plan for the Kenai River’s late-run king salmon. Under the current management regime, a lot rides on the escapement numbers of late-run kings, both in the sportfishery and the commercial setnet fishery.

At the 2014 meeting, after a disastrously low king return in the 2012 season slammed the season closed on the setnet fishery and heavily restricted the inriver sport fishery, the board passed corresponding restrictions on the sport fishery and the setnet fishery based on king escapements. The restrictions, known as paired restrictions, were billed as sharing of the burden of conservation, though setnetters say they unfairly places the burden on them while the sportfishery still gets to operate while they are closed.

With a full suite of proposals that tinkered with various aspects of the plan, three days packed with public comment and a full day behind schedule, the board tackled the issue with a bare-bones document with amendments composed by board member Israel Payton, drawing from suggestions from the public and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff.

On the chopping block were three major issues: the conversion of the current all-fish goal to Fish and Game’s big fish goal, the restrictions to the sport and commercial fisheries based on a run trigger point and the level of parity in the paired restrictions.

“We set these management plans and we change them over years,” Payton said. “… Through committee of the whole, we heard various things from various users, and yes, this plan may need some tweaking.”

The cry from the commercial fisheries has been “let the managers manage,” meaning for the board to take prescriptive management measures off. The sportfishing advocates have said the paired restrictions only kick into effect during years of low king salmon abundance, which aren’t every year, so they do provide for parity.

The board spent its entire afternoon tinkering with aspects of the plan, primarily targeted at whether to relax some restrictions on the commercial fishery. One of the biggest struggles was over whether to make changes to the paired restrictions, which board member Sue Jeffrey proposed as a way to answer the complaints from the commercial setnetters.

“I think we’ve heard so far throughout this meeting that paired restrictions are anything but parity,” she said. “… I think that we are in a new regime. This is a reason to change, because we are talking about counting large kings now, which has an effect on the sockeye fishery that is going on at the same time. This is reasonable because we have two runs, two different fisheries taking place at the same time.”

Jimmying from the two user groups also played a role. During the midday break, two proposed amendments — one from a group of east side setnetters, the other from the sportfishing group Kenai River Sportfishing Association — were submitted, with the only significant difference coming in the restrictions to the setnet fishery.

Early on in the discussion, the board decided to tackle a number of the issues in one go. They voted to drop the trigger number, which has been set at 22,500 and would have been adjusted to account for the new large fish goal, which is between 13,500 and 27,000 late-run kings. The trigger sets off restrictions to both the sportfishery and the commercial fishery, and removing it allows the board to make the call based on wehther it will make its escapement.

Sportfish area management coordinator Tom Vania said removing the trigger would allow the department to react to a variety of different circumstances, depending on harvest and on the run size.

More contentious was the debate over whether to remove or change the paired restrictions. Jeffrey proposed an amendment to introduce time allowances based on run size, similar to the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management plan, with tiers based on projected escapement. Director of the Division of Sport Fish Tom Brookover said the division was concerned that if more time were added, based on additional harvest of king salmon, staff would be more likely to restrict to no bait on the sportfishery, which would trigger additional restrictions on the setnet fishery.

“I think the effect would be that we would be under these restrictions in more run size scenarios than we would be currently,” he said.

With that in mind, and information that the setnet fishery harvests approximately 150 large kings per day, Jeffrey said she wouldn’t support adding the tiers. The motion failed, and the time allowances stayed in place there.

However, the board did vote to change the hour allowances for setnets in three circumstances. When the sportfishery is at no bait, the board adjusted the hours available from 36 to 48, which is less than board members Robert Ruffner, Orville Huntington, Jeffrey and board chair John Jensen said they would like, but they were willing to compromise. The board also increased the number of setnet fishing hours available when the sportfishery is at catch-and-release from 12 to 24, essentially restoring two 12-hour fishing periods. Finally, they repealed hour restrictions to the setnet fishery in August, after the sportfishery was closed, while it previously was set by triggers based on projected escapements.

The board passed the plan as amended 7-0. Immediately afterward, as Jensen was asking the board members if they wanted to go on with the agenda, a fire alarm rang and the entire board and its attendees were chased outside into the windy Anchorage evening.

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

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