The Cook Inlet drift fleet is largely done fishing for the summer, with a catch of more than 2 million salmon.
Through Aug. 12, when fishing had ended in most areas, the fleet had landed 1.4 million sockeyes, 402,138 pinks, 65,678 silvers and 107,299 chums according to call-in estimates provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw said the average drifter caught about 18,000 pounds of sockeye. Most fishermen saw lower catch per unit effort, or CPUE, this summer.
According to ADFG biologist Pat Shields, the CPUE never exceeded 500 fish for the whole summer.
Maw attributed that to management plan changes that meant fishermen spent more time and moved around more to catch their fish, as well as changes in fish behavior and location.
“All that did was increase our fuel cost, made us less economic,” he said.
Like other sectors, Cook Inlet’s drift fleet faced changes this summer as the result of Board of Fisheries action at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting in February — including a change to the allowable fishing area, which led to the increased movement required to catch fish this summer, according to Maw and other drifters.
Cook Inlet fisheries are generally managed with a commercial preference for sockeyes and a sport preference for silvers, or cohos, and kings, or chinook, salmon harvests.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough successfully advocated for the board to create a corridor to allow silvers to swim north and enter borough waterways, with drifters targeting other salmon.
Maw and David Martin, another fisherman and UCIDA member, said the change meant boats spent more time trying to catch their fish.
Martin described it as broken tool in ADFG’s toolbox.
“We told ‘em it was broke before they put it in there,” he said.
The Mat-Su Borough, however, has lauded the use of the tool this summer, and during an Aug. 28 borough Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, members attributed strong silver runs in the region to the changes.
Several Northern District streams and rivers have seen strong silver runs, and the borough credits the returns with the fact that drifters weren’t catching those fish in the middle of the Inlet.
In 2013, drifters caught 163,193 silvers in the central district through Aug. 12. Through Aug. 11 of this year, the fleet caught 65,678 silvers in that same area.
Shields said the interplay is more complicated than that.
“At first glance, one could conclude that the new plans must have made a difference because the coho salmon harvest was substantially less. While there may be some merit to that conclusion, there are also other factors that affect coho salmon harvest,” he wrote in an email.
Shields said that those other factors include the fact that sockeye are the more valuable species, and in 2014, drifters spent much of their time chasing sockeye, rather than fishing areas of coho abundance.
“Moving the drift fleet out of the middle of Cook Inlet over to the east side undoubtedly reduces the harvest of coho salmon headed north,” Shields wrote. “But, the department has multiple stocks to manage to various escapement goals and we will need more time before we can arrive at any conclusions about whether or not the new management plans are ‘working.’”
Northern District biologists could not be reached in time to comment on the changes, or how it affected escapements in those streams.
Generally, however, sport fishing limits were liberalized in the Mat-Su streams, and some — including the Little Su — exceeded their escapement goals, with an estimated 23,788 cohos counted through Sept. 4, compared to a goal of 10,100 to 17,700 fish.
Maw also pointed to a change in fish behavior that likely affected the drift fleet’s catch and the returns to rivers — fish swam deeper this summer than in some past years.
Martin said fishermen could see sockeyes and silvers down deep in the ocean, between 30 to 60 feet below the surface according to depth sounders. Driftnets are about 18 feet deep, and the fishermen just couldn’t get to them. Martin also noted that fish seemed more spread out than in past summers.
That’s just a normal part of fishing, he said.
“By the time you think you’ve got them figured out, they do something different,” Martin said.
The board also created a new Anchor Point section for the drift fleet.
Limited data is available about how extensively it was used, but fishermen and managers said anecdotally, it didn’t appear to be widely used.
The new Anchor Point section runs from Anchor Point up the shore to the south end of the Kasilof section, near Ninilchik. ADFG runs a test boat in the area, and told the board at the meeting that it’s typically the section with the lowest sockeye catches.
Maw said it wasn’t an ideal spot for fishing.
“Lots of mom and dad and the kids trying to catch halibut, and no salmon,” Maw said at the end of the season.
Martin said fishermen told the board it likely wouldn’t be used, and that’s what was seen this summer.
The fleet was also managed under the one percent rule this summer, which was passed as a way to focus effort on sockeyes and shut down fishing when sockeye catches dropped compared to other species,
In part because of that rule, which shut down many fishing areas, the drift fleet was largely out of the water by mid-August.
Toward the end of the month, Martin estimated that four or five fishermen were still going over to the available fisheries on the west side of Cook Inlet to catch a few more fish. Martin said he sells most of his fish as homepacks at the end of the season.
Maw agreed that the late-season fish typically is used to supply local, niche markets.
Both said that they’d like to see an adjustment to the rule that could at least allow for targeting pinks later in the season, and an agenda change request has been submitted to the board to consider such an adjustment this year.
Reach Molly Dischner at email@example.com