Kenai City Council members on Tuesday formally called for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner to give Upper Cook Inlet’s East Side Setnet fishery additional opportunities to harvest sockeye salmon during the 2022 fishing season. Council members approved a resolution calling for the move during a special city council meeting held Tuesday evening.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries announced on July 16 Emergency Order 2S-18-22, closing the set gill net fishing in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands Sections of the Upper Subdistrict. The closure was triggered by low king salmon numbers, the department said.
In all, there are more than 400 permit holders in Upper Cook Inlet’s East Side Setnet fishery. That’s per the resolution passed Tuesday. About 90% of those permit holders are Alaska residents and about 80% of Alaska permit holders live in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“Allowing all other user groups to continue to harvest sockeye with increased fishing opportunities while completely prohibiting the East Side Setnet fishery to harvest sockeye is inequitable, does not appear to be scientifically based, will result in economic disaster for some East Side Fishermen and negatively impacts the economy of the City of Kenai,” the resolution says.
As first reported by KDLL, the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund is suing the State of Alaska over the closures.
The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a nonprofit commercial fisheries advocacy group, primarily represents salmon setnet permit holders on the east side of Cook Inlet. The group in a July 20 press release voiced its “extreme concern” over the closure of the fishery by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“This action immediately closed the doors of the businesses of more than 400 families who work in the Upper Cook Inlet Setnet fishery!” the press release says. “The loss of the fishery will do irreparable harm not only to the fishermen who will lose their livelihoods but also to the Kenai Peninsula’s economy and food security.”
The group went on to criticize the closure’s unique effects on the east side setnet fishery, which was triggered when the state closed the Kenai River drainage to king salmon fishing.
The Kenai River Late-Run King Management Plan says that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game must close the commercial set gillnet fishery in the Upper Subdistrict if the projected late-run large king salmon escapement is less than 15,000 fish, the order says. As of July 15, the Kenai River late-run large king salmon passage was estimated to be 2,352.
“Inseason projections show all indices of abundance remain well below their respective minimum inseason management objective,” emergency orders closing the fishery say. “At this time, it does not appear that the late-run will attain adequate escapement without significant restrictions to all fisheries that harvest this stock.”
The department’s Division of Commercial Fisheries announced Tuesday that based on results of an inseason assessment of Upper Cook Inlet’s sockeye salmon run through July 24, management of the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet and Central District drift gillnet commercial fisheries “will not change.”
The estimated total Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon run through July 24 is about 3.7 million fish. The department projects the total run size to be around 6.4 million fish. That’s compared to the estimated Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stock — estimated to be around 1.9 million fish through July 24 and around 3.6 million fish for the total run.
“With this inseason assessment, management of the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet and Central District drift gillnet commercial fisheries will not change and will continue to be managed for run sizes between 2.3 to 4.6 million Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon,” the Tuesday announcement says.
Multiple people testified in support of the resolution Tuesday, including commercial fishers, local politicians and members of local fishing groups.
Amber Every, of Kenai, said she and her husband are raising fourth-generation Cook Inlet commercial fishers. She said Cook Inlet’s east side setnet fishery has to fight for its season every year and that only 32 king salmon have been caught by the fishery this season. More than 99% of the east side setnet harvest, she said, is sockeye salmon.
“There is no doubt the upper Cook Inlet is a very dynamic mixed dock fishery, where trade-off decisions are made every season,” Every said. “ … The economic impact of these management plans and policies are felt not only by the business owners in the room tonight, but also (by) the local and state economies.”
Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Kenai, said he’s “not a fan” of the current commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and said he and other Kenai Peninsula representatives in the Alaska Legislature have tried and failed to take action.
“For 38 years, I have watched this fishery get managed politically — not biologically,” Gillham said. “That needs to change.”
Still, not everyone who gave input was supportive of the resolution. Mack E. Padgett, who asked in public comments for the council to not pass the resolution, described himself as “not anti-set net, simply pro King Salmon.”
“Fishery Management has finally progressed to include paired restrictions related to Kenai River King Salmon,” Padgett wrote. “Kenai River King Salmon have suffered for years, and the State of Alaska Board of Fish has implemented measures that might provide hope for a continued July King Salmon run.”
Senate President Peter Micciche said that he would advocate for any user group that is being unfairly treated, as he said the east side setnetters are, but that advocacy for policy change must be consistent.
“The bottom line is, we can’t just rise up on July twenty-something every year,” Micciche said. “It has to be a constant campaign to get the assistance we need to manage the fishery effectively. What we’re doing is clearly not working.”
Per the resolution passed by the City of Kenai on Tuesday, copies of the legislation will be sent to the State of Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game, to all members of the Board of Fish and to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Per an amendment made Tuesday, copies of the resolution will also be sent to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, as well as the mayors of Homer, Soldotna and Seward.
The council’s full Tuesday meeting can be viewed on the City of Kenai’s YouTube channel.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.