Fish board to consider agenda change requests

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that David Martin said the commercial fishermen do not all move across the Cook Inlet when the east side beaches close because of the 1 percent rule.

Several Agenda Change Requests submitted to the Board of Fisheries focus on sockeye salmon overescapement into the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.

Sockeye salmon escapement exceeded certain goals on both rivers by the close of fishing season this year — the Kenai River by about 500,000 fish and the Kasilof by about 80,000 fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s records.

Several of the requests zero in on the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The zone, which encompasses a section of the river mouth and about a mile out into the Cook Inlet, is usually closed to commercial fishermen.

Fish and Game will open it to commercial fishing when the sockeye salmon escapement is especially high.

However, some have contended that the department has overused the area in recent years. One ACR proposed to the Board of Fisheries asks that the department only open the Special Harvest Area after July 25 each year because of overcrowding issues.

Mark Ducker, who submitted the ACR, wrote that continually opening the harvest area makes it impossible for regular fishermen to take part in the harvest, which is far from them.

“It is physically impossible for most of the Kasilof fishermen to participate in this fishery which may be 30 miles away,” Ducker wrote in the ACR. “This fishing area was too rarely if ever to be used, but now is becoming the new norm, even being used in June.”

The Board of Fisheries operates on a three-year rotating basis, in which proposals related to individual management areas are reviewed every three years. However, ACRs can be taken up if the board judges that they meet one of three criteria: conservation; an error in regulation; or an unforeseen consequence of prior regulation.

Ducker argued that continually opening the area could damage the Kasilof king salmon run and that the board failed to consider that set gillnet fishermen would wait there and others would not have access to the area because it is opened so often.

Pat Shields, the commercial fishing area management biologist with Fish and Game, said the harvest area has been utilized more often in recent years, but mostly as a stopgap conservation measure. The low king salmon numbers seen in the Kenai River have led the department to close the setnet fishery more often, but the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area allows them to increase the number of fishing hours the department can offer to commercial fishermen, he said.

“We’ve been opening the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area a little more knowing that we won’t be able to open the setnet fisheries,” Shields said. “The 2015 season we just had with the king salmon was a little better than expected, so we were able to provide a little more time for the setnet fishery. The result was that they caught more sockeye, but the result was that we still overescaped both the Kasliof and the Kenai River.”

Ducker also filed ACRs asking the Board of Fisheries to consider more carefully defining the set gillnet restrictions in the area and to lower the escapement goal range for Kenai king salmon from 17,800-35,700 to 15,000-30,000.

The higher range for escapement led to more fishing restrictions and resulted in sockeye overescapement in both the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, Ducker wrote. The plan unfairly favors inriver fisheries and damages commercial takes, he wrote. He filed another ACR requesting that the department require additional set gillnet fishery time when the sockeye goal for the Kenai River is projected to be achieved and the goal for the Kasilof River is expected to be exceeded.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association also submitted an ACR requesting the removal of the 1 percent rule. The rule requires that if 1 percent of the total sockeye salmon take for the year is taken after August 1, then fisheries on the east side of the Cook Inlet will automatically close.

David Martin, the president of UCIDA, said the rule is significantly damaging the commercial fishing industry and not based on current escapement numbers. The more fish there are in a year, the more likely it is for the fishing season to close, resulting in overescapement and waste of resources, he said.

“It’s not based on any science or biology, and it’s the only place in the state where it’s being used,” Martin said. “They’re going through the river and they’re not being harvested by anyone.”

Commercial fishermen were not able to fish on the east side of the inlet after the rule closes the fishery in August, causing them to lose out on the later runs of chum and pink salmon, Martin said. Some fishermen go to the west side of the inlet where the beaches are not yet closed, but only a few, he said. In the two years since the rule came into effect, the commercial fishing industry has lost millions in unharvested fish, Martin said.

The Board of Fisheries will consider whether to take up any of the ACRs in its meeting held Wednesday and Thursday in Anchorage.

 

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

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