Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  Two sport anglers fish for silver salmon as the sun rises over the Kenai River Monday Sept. 1, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Two sport anglers fish for silver salmon as the sun rises over the Kenai River Monday Sept. 1, 2014 in Soldotna, Alaska.

Cook Inlet sport fishermen faced newly restrictive fisheries in 2014

  • By MOLLY DISCHNER and RASHAH MCCHESNEY
  • Saturday, September 6, 2014 10:13pm
  • News

Kenai River sport fisheries saw several changes this summer — including a closure of the early king run, new gear restrictions and pairings with the commercial fisheries.
Fishery management started conservatively, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish biologist Robert Begich. In the end that paid off, as both the early and late-run kings met their escapement goals.
The preliminary estimate is that the total run of Kenai River late-run kings was about 18,000 or 19,000 fish, said ADFG Division of Commercial Fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields, which was similar to the preseason forecast.
ADFG estimated the escapement at about 16,061 kings. The run size estimate includes the fish that are harvested and the fish that make it into the river.
Reaching that goal involved managing under certain changes instituted by Alaska’s Board of Fisheries at its Upper Cook Inlet meeting in February, and largely meant that the commercial fishery restrictions were dictated by management within the sport fishery.
Begich said the pairings didn’t affect how the Division of Sport Fish managed — they remained focused on managing for escapement goals and using the provisions and tools available to them.

Shields said that the two divisions talked regularly, however, and management of several fisheries was focused on Kenai kings.
Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said the pairings worked as intended.
“I think sharing the conservation burden allowed fishing opportunity for all of the sectors throughout the season,” Gease said.
Although the decision to start the early-run fishery as closed was hard for guides and local businesses dependent on the sport fishing industry, Gease said it was the right decision for the run.
For Rod Berg, co-owner of Rod ‘N Real, the closure of the early run king salmon fishery was another blow to the guided sportfishing industry — one that has undergone drastic changes in the 30 years that he has been working on the Kenai River.
Berg, whose guide business typically runs five river boats on Kenai Peninsula streams, one marine boat out of Ninilchik and another out of Seward, said regulatory restrictions in the halibut and king salmon fisheries in the Cook Inlet added to those on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers made the fishing season tough to weather.
The lower harvest outlook for halibut during 2014 limited Southcentral operators to one trip per day in addition to clients being restricted to one fish of any size and a second of 29 inches or less.
Cook Inlet halibut guides restricted to one trip per day saw a drop in revenue; Berg said Rod ‘N Real’s charter captain lost 40 percent of his business.
“When the crowds are here and it’s busy, we had to turn away literally hundreds of people this summer,” Berg said. “They’re going into each (charter) office and it’s just money walking in and walking out just as quickly as it walks in. They go to the next office and the next and they make phone calls and nobody can get them a trip.”
Berg said he and his business partners were considering buying another boat — just to have the option to run two halibut trips per day.
“That’s a huge investment for us,” he said. “We’re talking about the skipper coming, switching all the gear over, taking the permit over and there’s just no money it for us. It just doesn’t pencil out … we’re in big trouble there with our halibut business and it’s a common (problem) for anybody in Homer or Seward.”
The halibut business had provided Berg and other guides with a place to send tourists who had come up for king salmon fishing during May and June, but that has become a difficult proposition with the new restrictions.
“They closed the saltwater kings down too, so that didn’t help us any,” Berg said.
ADFG managers also used a provision added to the management plans this winter that allowed the department to require the use of barbless hooks during the catch and release Kenai River king fishery.
That provision passed after the board amended a proposal from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association to require barbless hooks. ADFG does not have data on how the hook change reduces mortality, and whether barbless or barbed hooks are used are not factored into the final king estimate.
Begich said that there wasn’t a lot of fishing effort when barbless hooks were required, and it looked like it mostly affected guided anglers on the Kenai River.
Gease said that even if the restriction was more symbolic rather than affecting the mortality estimates, the sector was willing to switch hooks to help share the burden of conservation.
Dwight Kramer, a sport fisherman with a long history of Kenai River fishing who advocates for unguided anglers, said he supported the change to barbless hooks last winter, and saw it as a way to reduce hook damage.
“I think going barbless would help in reducing that,” he said.
Kramer said he didn’t think that the regulation affected people’s ability to participate in the fishery, and the greater impact came from the run sizes and characteristics this summer.

Low king numbers and the lack of a major red pulse limited fishing overall, he said.
Regulations, however, weren’t the issue — it was just how fishing goes.
In the future, however, Kramer said further management restrictions could help the runs.
“It’s got to be more conservative than we have now even,” Kramer said.
For his own part, Kramer said he no longer participates in the king fishery.
“I haven’t fished for kings for several years because of the closures,” he said. “If they’re down that far, I don’t want to participate myself, that’s just a personal choice.”
For management, Kramer said catch and release was an appropriate measure to tone down the fishery, because it enables people to participate while still protecting the fishery. Under the paired restrictions, it’s also a compromise that allows for some commercial fishing and some guide activity, without overwhelming the area.
“It’s a good tool to have,” he said.
Kramer said a slot limit could also be helpful to protect larger fish. A slot limit — used in other fisheries — can require the release of the smallest and largest fish, while allowing anglers to keep a certain mid-size fish.
In-river, Berg said the focus had been on sockeye salmon and silver salmon during 2014 — Rod ‘N Real guides took clients on sportfishing trips and they took Alaskans on personal use dipnetting trips, though personal use guiding is a smaller portion of their business.
“We haven’t really relied on (dipnetting),” he said. “We don’t want to start relying on it because I don’t think it’s going to last, personally… It has worked out for some guys and it’s something we’re probably going to be forced to do more and more of if these kings don’t turn around.”
Ultimately, Berg said, the guided sportfishing industry on the Kenai Peninsula will have to evolve to stay viable.
“It’s a whole different business model now. We added clam trips to the other side of the Inlet, we offer eco-tours, things like that,” he said. “But, how do you go from a harvest-type industry to an eco-tourism type thing? It is really hard to incorporate the two and we’ve had to farm out a lot of our business.”
Berg said he and his partners, including his brother and their wives — would be putting their guide business up for sale, but he is not optimistic that selling will be profitable.
“We really don’t have a business model at this point, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’re (selling) mainly because we’re retirement age and we’re supposed to have some golden years coming up, but it’s going to be very difficult to get the kind of money out of our business that we would have gotten ten years ago when we had a fishery.”

 

 

 

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