Travis Every, top left, speaks in support of fishing opportunity for the east side setnet fishery before the State Board of Fisheries at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Travis Every, top left, speaks in support of fishing opportunity for the east side setnet fishery before the State Board of Fisheries at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Local fishers talk conservation, opportunity before Board of Fisheries in Anchorage

Local fishers from the Kenai Peninsula traveled to Anchorage this weekend to offer public comment and testimony to the State Board of Fisheries as they deliberate on proposals impacting the Kenai River Late-run King Salmon Management Plan, the East Side Setnet Fishery, and other issues from around Upper Cook Inlet.

The board meeting runs through March 5, at Anchorage’s Egan Civic and Convention Center — public comment was accepted Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Monday. Kenai Peninsula residents also spoke to the board during a Tuesday committee of the whole meeting on an action plan for Kenai River late-run king salmon, which were named a stock of management concern by the board in October.

Individual fishers from Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski, Cooper Landing, Ninilchik and Homer all appeared to speak before the board, as did larger advocacy groups like the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and the Kenai River Professional Guide Association.

Seeing the most attention in testimony from local fishers was the conservation of Kenai River king salmon and pleas for an opportunity for the commercial ESSN — which last year was closed entirely due to low projections and returns of Kenai River late-run kings.

‘Surgical’ setnetting

Over a dozen members of the ESSN spoke before the board this weekend. Broadly, the message was the same — they said that they’ll do whatever it takes and get innovative to see opportunity for their fishery while minimizing their impact on the king salmon.

Those requests broadly hinged on fishing below the board-set Optimal Escapement Goal of 15,000 large king salmon — the ESSN was closed last year when the department projected that goal would not be met — but above the department-set Sustainable Escapement Goal of 13,500 salmon.

Gary Hollier, who’s fished the ESSN for 53 years and who hosted on his setnet site last year a study to see whether shallower setnets could be more selective for sockeye salmon instead of kings, said that the ESSN has come to the board each of the last three years seeking emergency assistance.

It’s been since 2020 that the Upper Cook Inlet was in cycle for board deliberation.

“We were asked to come back in cycle,” Hollier said. “We are in cycle.”

He said he wants to see opportunity under restricted time and gear — “strictly on abundance of sockeye.”

That idea, of fishing on abundance, was echoed by many of the fishers and saw significant questioning from the board.

Bryan Scow, who fishes the ESSN, was the first to describe the possibility of fishing only when the sockeye salmon are at their peak abundance — he said at that time there are fewer king salmon in the water.

Board member Märit Carlson-Van Dort said it would be difficult to put such a practice in regulation, especially when predictions for such a time would be imprecise, and each fishing site would be different.

Defending the idea of sockeye abundance, Ken Coleman, the vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said the concept is among the answers for his fishery.

Coleman described a day in the summer of 2013 when his fishery saw its single biggest one-day catch. He caught 8,000 sockeye salmon, he said, with only three kings.

“That’s a 0.0002 exploitation rate,” he said. “That’s one of those moments when we were successful. We think we can continue to be successful.”

With restrictions, Hollier said, it is possible to fish the ESSN and avoid catching king salmon. In addition to the proposed restrictions, Hollier believes that the effort by his fishery will be greatly diminished because of the years of restrictions it has faced. He said up to a third of the fishery is already gone.

“Let’s get out of low water, fish four hours into the flood, four hours into the ebb — fish four eight-hour openings and a 146-year-old fishery can stay alive,” he said. “If something doesn’t happen at this board, we are done.”

Phil Sheridan, who fishes the ESSN in Kasilof, cautioned against “hyper-focusing” on any one metric, like shallower nets, for the fishery. He encouraged looking at a broader package that implements a variety of restrictions to allow opportunity while still being conservative of king salmon.

Travis Every, a third-generation setnetter who fishes down Kalifornsky Beach Road, said that a tailored suite of restrictions can and should provide a limited, “surgical,” opportunity for the fishery. He said they can fish just 32 hours during the season, at times when sockeye are abundant, with reduced gear and area, to see the ESSN back in the water while doing everything possible to protect kings. These are options the ESSN is offering because of that desire to see opportunity again.

Norm Darch, an ESSN fisher on Salamatof Beach, said that between the diminishment of the fishery and restrictions, both existing and proposed, there isn’t any solid understanding of the contemporary harvest power or impact of the ESSN — certainly it’s less than it once was.

Painting a clearer picture of what the fishery is capable of is what ESSN fisher Brian Gabriel asked of the board. He said that he wants to see a chance for the fishery — that there’s room to do that with restrictions, under the OEG — and that real information needs to be collected to inform further decisions.

Lance Alldrin, who fishes the East Forelands near Nikiski, spoke on behalf of his proposal for the use of “flagged nets,” which don’t exist in regulation. He said it’s something he’s experimented with on his site, fishing one net paralleled to the surface of the water instead of perpendicular. He says “It’s not terribly efficient,” but that he’s only seen a single king salmon caught by that method in his career.

“We’re talking about adapting here,” he said.

In addition to offering ideas and proposing solutions, many ESSN fishers spoke about the value of their fishery to their families and their experiences in recent years closed by regulation.

Ted Crookston, who fishes on Salamatof Beach, said it’s “emotional” to speak to the board on behalf of “a lifestyle.”

“We’re asking you to adopt a plan that addresses both saving the fish as well as saving the people — the families,” he said. “Both are at stake.”

Amber Every, who fishes down Kalifornsky Beach Road with her husband, Travis, said the ESSN has “a legacy that is worth fighting for.”

“Despite its lack of profitability, the fishery holds immense value for my family,” she said. “The work ethic instilled in my children and the opportunity for our family to come together each summer for salmon harvesting are priceless.”

Matthew Person, who said he’s a third-generation ESSN fisher from Ninilchik, said his fishery is just as interested in conserving Kenai River king salmon as the other users of local fisheries — but they’re the only group removed entirely from fishing to protect them.

A threshold for success

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association was among the first to speak during public testimony this weekend. Executive Director Shannon Martin used her time only to introduce two contracted consultants for her group. One of those analysts, Kevin Delaney, spoke in favor of the OEG.

Delaney said that the OEG “must stand,” both as a “hard bottom” for opportunity but also as a benchmark for recovery of Kenai River late-run kings as a stock of management concern.

Ray Beamesderfer, who followed Delaney and also spoke for KRSA, introduced a concept that came up several times in discussion at the board this week — saying that their projections indicate that at the bottom end of the SEG, the stock is failing to replace itself and will be unable to recover.

Board Chair John Wood questioned whether there was “parity” in the actions supported by KRSA, saying that per their suggestions, commercial fishers will remain entirely closed.

Sport fishers, he said, “would continue to be allowed to harvest sockeye, trout or whatever … whereas the east side setnetters, under the current scenario you described, aren’t allowed to harvest anything,” Wood said. “I don’t see the parity there.”

Delaney said those closures would be justified because gillnets aren’t a selective enough tool for harvest.

Mark Glassmaker, who said he’s a sport fisher on the Kenai River, pushed back on the idea that his fishery can pivot to other species. He said that sockeye fishing is more physically demanding and that he knows older fishers who have had their careers ended by the changing landscape. That’s something, he said, that he’s “aware of” as he ages.

Mike Crawford, chair of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, and Josh Hayes, chair of the Cooper Landing Fish and Game Advisory Committee, both voiced their groups’ support of upholding the OEG to the board.

A recurring argument brought by the commercial fishers is that providing opportunity for their fishery below the late-run king OEG is justified to curtail the high escapements of sockeye salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, both of which have been regularly exceeding their goals — last year by over 1 million fish on the Kenai.

Sheridan said he’s concerned about that overescapement and its potential impact on the stock — the department has historically said it has no data on whether high escapements will have a negative impact.

Travis Every said that seeing the overescapement on the rivers is “crushing,” for his fishery.

Scott Daletas, a sport fisher on the Kenai River, pushed back on the idea of overescapement as an issue. He said that the Kasilof River has exceed its sockeye goal in 19 of the last 21 years — “the sockeye keep producing.”

Coho concerns

Also seeing some attention from local folks speaking before the board was silver salmon, which the department doesn’t track to the same extent as king or sockeye salmon..

Josh Hayes, speaking for the Cooper Landing Fish and Game Advisory Committee, advocated for increased protection of the stock.

That call was echoed by Jason Lesmeister, also of Cooper Landing. He cited stress on the species near Cooper Landing by fishing in the winter months, where some silver salmon can be caught and released multiple times a day.

Greg Springer, a sport fishing guide from Kenai, spoke about protecting coho salmon near Kenai and Soldotna. He said that there’s a lack of data about the health of the stock, but that he’s heard concerns from experienced peers.

“Without data, I feel it’s prudent that we give weight to the observations of people who have interacted and noticed first hand the change in coho density,” Springer said. “I feel its crucial that we be proactive and take action to protect these stocks now before we end up in a similar situation as to what we are with the king salmon.”

Acting on an action plan

During the committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday, board members pointed to complete action plans submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association as the more holistic kind of input that they’re looking for as they prepare to make decisions on the Kenai River late-run king salmon action plan — as opposed to focusing on a single issue at a time. The board is scheduled to act on the plan Thursday.

Between the two packages, they said, every issue on the table can be addressed. In the days following, the Kenai River Professional Guide Association has submitted a third complete plan.

Travis Every spoke of the KPFA plan, saying it was created by the “largest consensus of setnetters” ever compiled, representing each section of the beach. Some setnetters, especially those who fish near the Kasilof, said they didn’t necessarily agree with everything in it.

Their plan, he said, features the ideas that the setnetters have been talking about since the start of the meeting. Openers of only eight hours each, with reduced gear and area, between the SEG and OEG — he said they don’t know how to get any smaller. Fishing such tight openings, he said commercial fishers will be on their gear constantly and more likely to see and rescue king salmon.

Board member Carlson-Van Dort expressed some skepticism of the plan, especially fishing below the OEG, worrying that commercial fishers are looking only at 2024 instead of “years out.”

Every said he doesn’t think the ESSN can survive without this limited opportunity. He pointed to 2022, when he said the ESSN fished double the time than they’re proposing, with twice the gear, and through all the tide cycle — and took only 41 large kings.

“We’re losing a 130-year-old industry here, in this scenario, over 32 hours of fishing,” he said.

Joseph Person, an ESSN fisher from Ninilchik, echoed that defense, saying that the plan is the best they can do, but more importantly that it’s something they think will work.

“These very low levels of impact are historically considered, in almost every other fishery in the state, to be acceptable,” he said. “It is almost inconceivable that this fishery has an impact of over 100 large kings. My expectation is that it will be under 50.”

At the suggestion of the board, Every said that he would approach KRSA and see if the two organizations could create a combined plan representing both sport and commercial fishers. Hollier said a few hours later that the request by KPFA had been “eloquently turned down.”

No one from KRSA spoke on behalf of their plan, though Delaney spoke and encouraged the board to use the two plans together as they work on their ideas for the action plan.

The KRSA plan document describes the sport fishery proceeding largely as it has, with the closure of king salmon fishing below the OEG. It adds further bait restrictions for multiple fisheries. For the ESSN, it describes no fishing below the OEG and significant additional restrictions for fishing above the OEG.

Monte Roberts, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said his group wants the OEG to stay the bottom of opportunity — he said that they want to see greater restrictions and the goal surpassed significantly before Kenai River king salmon are removed from stock of concern. Those desires are reflected in the document they later submitted.

“We’re gonna be in it for the long haul,” he said.

Francis Estallia, who said he’s been fishing the Kenai River for 50 years, said during public comment on the weekend that he advocated for a more conservative “dial up” method of management, as opposed to “dialing down” when things don’t look good. During committee of the whole, he said he wanted to see the ESSN test their proposed restrictions.

“I really want to see these east side setnets get in there and try this more surgical way of getting in the water,” he said. “If we never do it, we’ll never know if it works. But we’ve gotta be cautious about it — they go in, we dip our toes in the water, they pull back, we assess.”

Hollier on Tuesday reiterated his and Every’s fear that the ESSN won’t be around for the next Upper Cook Inlet in 2027 if they don’t see changes this year.

“This fleet would do whatever it could take,” he said. “Anything to get opportunity.”

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.

More in News

tease
House District 6 race gets 3rd candidate

Alana Greear filed a letter of intent to run on April 5

Kenai City Hall is seen on Feb. 20, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai water treatment plant project moves forward

The city will contract with Anchorage-based HDL Engineering Consultants for design and engineering of a new water treatment plant pumphouse

Students of Soldotna High School stage a walkout in protest of the veto of Senate Bill 140 in front of their school in Soldotna, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
SoHi students walk out for school funding

The protest was in response to the veto of an education bill that would have increased school funding

The Kenai Courthouse as seen on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Clam Gulch resident convicted of 60 counts for sexual abuse of a minor

The conviction came at the end of a three-week trial at the Kenai Courthouse

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meets in Seward, Alaska, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (screenshot)
Borough awards contract for replacement of Seward High School track

The project is part of a bond package that funds major deferred maintenance projects at 10 borough schools

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President LaDawn Druce, left, and committee Chair Jason Tauriainen, right, participate in the first meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Four Day School Week Ad Hoc Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
4-day school week committee talks purpose of potential change, possible calendar

The change could help curb costs on things like substitutes, according to district estimates

A studded tire is attached to a very cool car in the parking lot of the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Studded tire removal deadline extended

A 15-day extension was issued via emergency order for communities above the 60 degrees latitude line

A sign for Peninsula Community Health Services stands outside their facility in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
PCHS to pursue Nikiski expansion, moves to meet other community needs

PCHS is a private, nonprofit organization that provides access to health care to anyone in the community

Jordan Chilson votes in favor of an ordinance he sponsored seeking equitable access to baby changing tables during a meeting of the Soldotna City Council in Soldotna, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna OKs ordinance seeking to increase access to baby changing tables

The ordinance requires all newly constructed or renovated city-owned and operated facilities to include changing tables installed in both men’s and women’s restrooms

Most Read