The waters of Cook Inlet lap against Nikishka Beach in Nikiski, Alaska, where several local fish sites are located, on Friday, March 24, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The waters of Cook Inlet lap against Nikishka Beach in Nikiski, Alaska, where several local fish sites are located, on Friday, March 24, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Fish and Game says local setnet study may ‘solve decades-long struggle’

A study of setnet harvest selectivity for sockeye and king salmon will be conducted by the Department of Fish and Game on a Kenai Peninsula setnet site.

The study would test a new net design that is intended to better target “abundant” sockeye while reducing harvest on the “weaker” chinook, a Thursday press release from the department says.

Special Assistant Rick Green said Thursday that the nets are modified in their depth, described as mesh. A traditional set gillnet would be 45-mesh, but Green said the study will be deploying “full size nets, but one at 22 mesh and one at 15 mesh.” The smaller sizes will hang higher off the bottom of the body of water in which they’re deployed.

“The select harvest method may allow for a harvest of sockeye while allowing the Chinook to swim below the bottoms of the nets uninterrupted on their journey to the spawning grounds,” the release reads.

The department has partnered with Canada-based Kintama Research to conduct the study.

“If (the) new net design works as the science says it should, this could be the successful way forward to allow an economic yield from the harvestable surplus of sockeye while ensuring chinook conservation benefitting the fish populations and the sport anglers, commercial, and personal use fishers,” Kintama Research Founder David Welch says in the release.

The move comes in the midst of a fishing season where the east side setnet fishery is not operating at all. Preseason emergency orders by the department delivered in March closed the east side setnet fishery this season and closed the Kenai River and Cook Inlet’s king salmon fisheries to sport anglers months before they opened.

Brian and Lisa Gabriel are two such setnetters who have been without opportunity this season. They’ve been setnetting locally since 1987. They said Friday that modifying their gear isn’t the solution in which they’re putting the most stock.

“I’m not afraid of trying new things,” Brian said. “I just have concerns.”

Reducing the size of the nets has been tried before, with regulations implemented by the Board of Fisheries in 2014 and 2020 restricting the east side setnetters from 45 mesh nets to 29 mesh nets. Since then, the fishery has seen other closures and restrictions, and anglers still haven’t seen opportunity. Brian said they don’t even know if the move from 45 to 29 made a difference.

“We’ve got 29 mesh in regulation, but we have no data on that,” he said. “From my experience, the goal posts just keep moving.”

Shifting to a net even smaller would result in costs to east side setnetters at a “tough time to reinvest,” and wouldn’t necessarily prevent other restrictions. Brian said shorter nets would probably catch fewer kings, but they would definitely catch fewer sockeye.

Efficiency is the statistic Brian said he wants to see come out of the study, how many sockeye were caught compared to kings in the different tested sizes, and how quickly.

Rather than the selective gear to target sockeye instead of kings, the area Brian wants to see explored is fishing on abundance. He said anglers could see returns by fishing when the most sockeye and the fewest kings are in the water — even in smaller time periods.

“Fishermen are getting desperate,” he said. “They want to have opportunity.”

The release says that late-run king salmon abundance in the Kenai River has been at “historic low levels” in recent years. The Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan requires closing the king salmon fishery and the east side setnetters if fewer than 15,000 large king salmon are projected to escape.

According to the first in-season run summary for late-run Kenai River king salmon published by the department, the preseason forecast was fewer than 14,000 king salmon escaping. As of Thursday, only 500 have been counted by sonar, falling short of the counts at the same time for the last four years. Each of those four years failed to meet the lower end of the optimal escapement goal.

Brian said that in 2022, when the fishery saw a brief and restricted opening, only 32 king salmon were caught by the east side setnetters, compared to a late-run escapement reported by the department of more than 13,000.

“What’s the goal? Drive king salmon harvest in the setnet fishery to zero?” he asked. “I don’t know that that’s possible.”

While the east side setnetters are entirely closed this year, Brian said the mortality for king salmon in other fisheries is unquantified. He said he’s asked department staff about recent liberalizations in fishing area and bag limits for local anglers in sockeye personal use and sport fisheries, and what that means for king mortality. They’ve told him they don’t know.

The preseason closure of the east side setnetters and king salmon sport fishery is described as “highly controversial” in the release, and the department says the actions will be discussed at a meeting of the State Board of Fisheries in February. This season’s study of the new net design is intended “to inform” those discussions.

“We’re gonna be as transparent as we can with this and release all that we have,” Green said. “If it works, then we could take advantage of the economic opportunity that we’re not being able to right now.”

Lisa said she’s worried the study’s findings will be applied against the other proposals brought forward by setnetters.

This year’s test is described as the first step in a “three-year pilot program,” the release says. The new design will be operated starting later this week on July 8, continuing until Aug. 10. The next step will be to develop fish tracking techniques via telemetry that “aid in describing the way king salmon traverse the nearshore marine waters of the Upper Subdistrict.”

Department Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang says in the release that if the test is successful, it “solves a decades-long struggle with a win-win for the resource and all the user groups as well.”

“But make no mistake, at ADF&G conservation is paramount,” he continues. “We will be watching closely with fingers crossed.”

Fish harvested in the study will be sold with proceeds going to the department’s test fish fund, the release says. Preliminary results will be announced after the field season is complete.

More information about fishing regulations and availability can be found at adfg.alaska.gov.

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

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