Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect the correct measurement conversion of a 10-fathom net. It is 60 feet.
Anglers on the most heavily used river in the state will be joined by another group of fishermen this year after the Federal Subsistence Board on Thursday voted to allow subsistence gillnetting on the Kenai River.
The board also voted to allow the gear type on the Kasilof River after receiving proposals from the Ninilchik Tribal Council asking for a community set gillnet fishery for subsistence users.
While the new fisheries primarily target sockeye salmon — subsistence users are allowed 4,000 per year in the Cook Inlet — the potential to harvest other species of fish was an ongoing sticking point in the discussion. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists were concerned about resident species such as Dolly Varden and rainbow trout and the beleaguered king salmon runs. While the Ninilchik Tribal Council argued that the gillnets will catch far fewer king salmon than sport and commercial users do, state biologists said they were concerned that the new fishery is ill-prepared and potentially harmful to conservation efforts on struggling species.
The Federal Subsistence Board operates as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior to control federal subsistence. It is made up of the regional directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, and there are three public members appointed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture: two represent rural subsistence users and one is the Federal Subsistence Board chairman.
The tension between state management and federal management caused frustration among state biologists who attended the meeting.
Matt Miller, Fish and Game Regional Fisheries Management Coordinator for Southcentral Cook Inlet, said the two have different directives and adding gillnetting to a river that had faced severe conservation restrictions from state biologists was frustrating and confusing.
“It’s a non-selective gear type in an era of conservation. If you don’t say no to gillnets on the Kenai, what will you say no to?”
While the board made time and area amendments to the Kasilof River proposal — including a requirement that any community set gillnet fishery would need a operational plan before it hit the water — no caveats were added to Kenai River proposal.
The Federal Subsistence Board voted 4-3 to allow gillnetting on the Kenai River with the Bureau of Land of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service opposing the move.
The Ninilchik subsistence community will be able to operate one 10 fathom, or 60-foot long, net to take salmon. Users would not be allowed to obstruct more than half of the river’s width with stationary fishing gear and, if other subsistence stationary gear is in the water the gillnet would be set at least 200 feet away.
One permit for the Ninilchik subsistence community would be made available. However, board members said managers would also have to consider proposals from the subsistence communities in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass — meaning that up to three nets could potentially be used in the river.
The permits would be awarded by the federal fishery manager and the Kenai National Wildlife refuge manager.
Fishing will be allowed from June 15-August 15 on the Kenai River unless it is closed or otherwise restricted by federal action and salmon taken in the gillnet fishery would be included in the dipnet, and rod and reel fishery annual harvest limits for the Kenai River.
Subsistence fishing areas on the Kenai River include the Russian River Falls, Kenai River Mile 48 — just south of Skilak Lake — and Moose Range Meadows.
Fish and Game Sportfishing Area Management Biologist Robert Begich said he was concerned about the new fishery, both because of its location and its potential to affect the department’s ability to count and project how many king salmon would make it up the river to spawn.
Subsistence users can harvest 1,000 late-run king salmon in the Cook Inlet and the areas where those salmon could be harvested on the Kenai River are upriver from the areas where Fish and Game operates its in-season sonar projects to count and project the final numbers of the struggling fish stock.
“We would need their harvest for our projections to be correct,” he said.
Last year, managers projected that 16,671 chinook salmon escaped into the river, or about 1,671 fish above the lower end of the river’s escapement goal range.
Managers have struggled to meet the king salmon goal on the Kenai River and the fishery has become increasingly restrictive in recent years. In 2014, the Kenai king salmon fishing season began with an unprecedented closure for early-run king salmon, and Fish and Game also used a provision that required anglers to use barbless hooks later in the season — a first in the state.
Begich said he was also concerned with the idea of a gillnet being used downstream of Skilak Lake because of the variety of species holding in the area during the June through August time period.
“Those fish are all in different stages of pre- and post-spawning and when you put a gillnet in the water up there, you’re going to catch everything,” he said. “It’s a non-selective gear type so you’re going to be catching spawning-colored reds that you’re not going to want to catch, pinks, spawning-colored kings, everything.”
The board voted unanimously in favor of an amended proposal to allow gillnetting on the Kasilof River.
The new regulation will allow for one community setnet in the Kasilof River, aimed primarily at plentiful sockeye salmon runs. Last year, Fish and Game counted nearly 440,000 sockeye in the river.
The Ninilchik Traditional Council’s proposal adds a 10-fathomgillnet to the existing rod and reel, dipnet and fish wheel subsistence fisheries available on the river. The council argued that the current dipnet, rod and reel, and fish wheel allowances are not sufficient for their subsistence needs. By statute, subsistence is to be given a higher consideration than other fisheries, and the council argued that not allowing the most effective means to fish salmon would break that promise.
“Subsistence fishery is supposed to be the number one consideration,” said Executive Director of the Ninilchik Traditional Council Ivan Encelewski. “We’re not going to get a $100,000 seine permit just to satisfy our subsistence needs. We (subsistence users) feel like we get the short end of the stick.”
Salmon harvested from the gillnet fishery will be included as part of each household’s 25-per-household limit for sockeye from the Kasilof river.
The federal board amended the time and area available to subsistence gillnetters by allowing fishing only in July 1-31.
The Kasilof sockeye and king salmon runs stretch from June 16-August 15 while the coho and pink salmon seasons run from June 16 to Oct. 31.
The amendments also specified that the permit will be experimental for five years, then the board will review its performance.
Before the community net can hit the water, the board also required that it have an operational plan which would include information like mesh size, allocation and location restrictions.
Miller, the Fish and Game regional coordinator, said the addition of the experimental gillnet fishery flies in the face of the opportunities already available to the Ninilchik such as educational fishing permits. The risk to king salmon isn’t worth the gain for the sockeye, he said.
Encelewski argued that the millions of sockeyes harvested by the Cook Inlet commercial and sport fisheries are, in practice, prioritized by means of the conservation measures for sinking chinook stocks.
“We’re talking 4,000 sockeyes here,” said Encelewski “Conservation gets the priority, not us.”
After the meeting Kenai Peninsula users said they were surprised by the decision
Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said he was surprised by the decision because commercial and sport fishermen had worked with the issue of gillnets on the rivers in the past.
“I wonder what changed from the finding from 2007 when they said they didn’t want to use gillnets because of the indiscriminate nature and conservation concerns for Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and salmon,” Gease said.
Despite the criticism, board members said they had a responsibility to consider the subsistence users in the inlet.
Hydaburg mayor Tony Christianson, rural representative for the Federal Subsistence Board, said it was the board’s job to look at more than the potential economic impact a fishery could have.
“We only have the one thing to look after, and it’s the interests of the subsistence community,” he said. I’m here to fight for the people. I’m here to look after their needs, and their need is food, not money.”