Delayed information leads to confusion over king goals

One common thread running through the discussion over the new large-fish Kenai king salmon goals: Frustration at being late to the game.

Members of the public submitted their proposals to change Upper Cook Inlet fisheries regulations in April 2016, a little less than a year ahead of the meeting. Many of them ask for changes to the king salmon escapement goals on the Kenai River, which plays a significant role in the openings of the east side set gillnet fishery and on the restrictions to gear and retention for the inriver king salmon sportfishery.

However, in November 2016, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released a one-page memo describing a proposed transition to a new enumeration method that would only count king salmon 75 centimeters — approximately 33.3 inches — from mid-eye to tail fork or longer. Up to this point, Fish and Game’s sonar at river mile 13.7 has counted all king salmon, but it’s frustrating for managers to have to distinguish small king salmon from large sockeye in a wide, murky river with sonar pictures that can be less than clear. Counting only large kings will allow the managers to get a more accurate number and will likely include most of the older fish and the female fish.

The revised goal would have lower technical numbers than the current goal — the early-run goal would be 2,800-5,600 fish, and the late-run goal would be 13,500-27,000 fish. The new goals are based on size estimates from the total runs and are scaled proportionally, Fish and Game staff said.

“We’ve made a couple of approaches … to try to update that goal,” said Tim McKinley, the research coordinator for the Division of Sportfish in the Southcentral region, in a presentation to the board Sunday.

The problem is that now all the numbers included in the proposals before the board now contain the wrong escapement numbers. Although feelings about the potential for the big fish goal were mixed in the crowd, many people expressed frustration about the delay. Paul A. Shadura II, a South Kalifornsky Beach setnetter and representative of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said in his comments Saturday that the AC had been informed in winter meetings between 2015 and 2016 that the change was possible.

“We also were led to believe that public meetings would be held prior to the submission deadline so that the public and our AC could comment or make recommendations or possibly submit any changes to escapement goal management,” he said. “Then, just prior to the deadline date, we were told the department would not be pursuing this goal because there was not a clear plan to the department to recommend.”

Fish and Game has been talking about potentially switching to a large fish goal for some time, so stakeholders may have hand an inkling that it was possible, but didn’t have confirmation until the memo came out. Over the 2016 season, Fish and Game in Soldotna had to revise its king salmon counts mid-July because of an error in the mixture model staff used to count small fish, resulting in a drop of about 1,900 fish.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association didn’t know about the exact recommendation for the new goal, but generally had the idea that the large fish goal would be the future, said Kevin Delaney, a fisheries consultant for KRSA.

Setnetters stand to lose significant fishing time if the department converts to the big fish goal but doesn’t adjust the paired restrictions that govern the setnet fishery. When late-run Kenai River king escapement is projected to fall below 22,500 fish, the setnet fishery is restricted from its regular openings and gets no more than 36 hours of fishing time per week. When the sportfishery is restricted to catch-and-release only, setnetters are restricted to one 12-hour fishing period per week.

Todd Smith, an east-side setnetter and member of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, a nonprofit group representing east side setnetters, said the group’s members had been led to believe before they submitted proposals last spring that the department wouldn’t be switching to a big king goal. They were taken by surprise, then, when the memo announcing the switch was submitted to the Board of Fisheries for its Lower Cook Inlet meeting in November 2016.

“None of us really knew there was going to be a big fish goal when we wrote our proposals,” he said.

One of the big requests from the setnetters at this meeting is to lift the paired restrictions set in 2014. They say restrictions place the burden of conservation unfairly on them, while the sportfishery still gets to fish, even if they don’t get to keep what they catch. If the paired restrictions are not changed or lifted, it could further limit opportunity for the setnet fishery without equally impacting the sportfishery, said Norm Darch, an east side setnetter, in a committee hearing Monday.

Citing escapement tables from the last several years, he said that the setnet fishery would not have had its historical opportunity to fish for the past six years if the big fish goal as proposed had been in place.

By mid-morning Monday, the Board of Fisheries was finished with its first two committee processes and prepared to go into deliberation on the proposals for changes to Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management and Kenai River late-run king salmon management. However, the board staff was so deluged with submitted materials — known as Record Copies, or RCs — that Board of Fisheries chairman John Jensen called for an at-ease to allow the members to read everything.

Proposers and advocates of both commercial and sport fisheries spent the break conferring over proposals and amendments to proposals and getting tall stacks of paperwork copies to distribute to the board members. The at-ease turned into a four-hour break, with the board reopening the discussions at 2 p.m. on the sockeye salmon proposals.

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

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