Gary Hollier pulls a sockeye salmon from a set gillnet at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Gary Hollier pulls a sockeye salmon from a set gillnet at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Findings from pilot setnet fishery study inconclusive

The study sought to see whether shorter nets could selectively catch sockeye salmon while allowing king salmon to pass below

A pilot study for the use of shallower nets to more selectively catch sockeye salmon in the east-side setnet fishery — once described by State Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang as a potential solution to “a decadeslong struggle with a win-win for the resource and all the user groups” — didn’t produce statistically significant findings.

That’s what Kintama Research Services President David Welch said in a presentation to the State Board of Fisheries in Anchorage on Saturday during their meeting on Upper Cook Inlet Finfish. He fielded questions and explained methods and findings to the board alongside Sandy Simons, who had been on the beach in Kenai counting fish each day of the study.

The study, which Welch said began to come into being in March 2023, was announced in July and conducted that same month. It sought to see whether shallower nets could selectively catch sockeye salmon while allowing king salmon to pass below. The study was conducted on a setnet site owned by Gary Hollier, down Kalifornsky Beach Road.

The depth of nets is measured in meshes. Welch told the board that they had fished three different sizes of nets, 15, 22 and 29 meshes deep — a traditional set gillnet is 45 meshes deep.

Those three sizes were tested inshore, on the beach and offshore, roughly 400 meters off the beach. Data was collected for the relative catch rates of sockeye and king salmon, as well as the fishing depths of the nets.

The nets only caught and killed six large king salmon — which are king salmon greater than 34 inches long, the only king salmon counted by the State Department of Fish and Game. Welch said they caught so few large kings that conclusions can’t be taken from the data. In addition to the six large kings that were killed, three more were successfully released.

“The numbers are too thin to do much analysis,” he said.

To create a more complete data set, Welch said they supplemented their catch numbers with the “jack kings,” those king salmon shorter than the large qualifier — on “the assumption” that they behaved the same. That only produced a sample size of 56 king salmon.

The catch rate of sockeye salmon was “pretty much the same” across all three net types fished inshore, but offshore Welch said the number of sockeye caught was effectively proportional to the three different depths — more net caught more salmon.

In testing the way different nets hang in the water, Welch said they realized the nets don’t spend all their time spread out to their maximum length — the movement of the water by currents lifts them and compresses them for “most of the day.” The difference could be as much as half their size at times as a result.

“It’s not true that a deep net necessarily fishes that deep,” he said. “The 15-mesh net is actually fishing deeper than the 22- or the 29-mesh in the offshore.”

Avoiding fishing at slack times, when the currents aren’t moving and the nets would hang deeper in the water, might help reduce the catch of king salmon if they are swimming deeper in the water, as a 2013 survey by Kintama has previously concluded, Welch said. But after exploring the possibility of a regulation that would prohibit fishing at slack water, they concluded that it would be “just not practical.”

For king salmon, the difference in catch between areas and between net types was “not statistically significant,” suggesting that the offshore nets were not any more or less effective at targeting sockeye and avoiding king salmon, just as the shallower nets didn’t necessarily catch fewer kings, Welch said. Of the six large kings that were killed, three were in the inshore nets and three were in the offshore nets.

Simons said that six of the nine total large kings caught were caught in the 29-mesh nets, but Welch said that with such small numbers to work with, true conclusions can’t be reliably drawn from the data

“Unfortunately, the answer is that there is no clear basis to say that one net type or one fishing area was better than the others in reducing chinook catch,” Welch said. “We have the same number of fish caught in the inshore and the offshore, and we had large kings caught in all mesh types.”

The ratio of sockeye salmon to large king salmon caught in the test fishery, he said, was 1,600 to 1.

If funding is secured for additional years of the study, Welch said it will ideally be conducted on up to four setnet sites at the same time. Also planned for inclusion in future iterations of the project is the collection and analysis of telemetry data to see where king salmon are in the water.

Commissioner Vincent-Lang asked several questions of Welch after the presentation about the implications of the study on management philosophy for the east-side setnet fishery. Welch broadly said the results of the study don’t give conclusive evidence to support any decisions.

“The data just doesn’t allow me to say anything, one way or the other,” Welch said.

“The best approach, based on what I’m hearing you say, is fish fewer nets than more nets and fish them for a shorter duration,” Vincent-Lang said.

When Welch sought to add context in response, beginning “that’s the general principle, I mean …” Vincent-Lang cut him off.

Speaking to the Clarion both during the test fishery and after preliminary data was released in October, Hollier has always said it is important for the results of the study to be brought before the board at this week’s meeting to prove that the east-side setnet fishery can operate, with restricted gear, without making a massive impact on king salmon.

He said that if change isn’t enacted for his fishery at the board meeting this year, they won’t get another opportunity in front of the board until its 2027 meeting. That’s a wait Hollier said his fishery can’t afford.

Discussing the preliminary results in October, Hollier said they “reinforce what a lot of setnetters have been saying.”

He’s submitted proposals to the board slated to be discussed this week that seek the use of those shallower nets to allow opportunity even at times of low king salmon abundance.

For more information about the Board of Fisheries, including livestreams, reports and audio from the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting, visit adfg.alaska.gov.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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