Daniel Reynolds, an environmental technician with the Ninilchik Traditional Council, prepares to place the buoy marking the tribe’s subsistence gillnet on the Kenai River on Aug. 14, 2016 near Soldotna. On April 3, the Federal Subsistence Board granted the Ninilchik Traditional Council’s special action request for the gillnet to operate again in 2017. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Daniel Reynolds, an environmental technician with the Ninilchik Traditional Council, prepares to place the buoy marking the tribe’s subsistence gillnet on the Kenai River on Aug. 14, 2016 near Soldotna. On April 3, the Federal Subsistence Board granted the Ninilchik Traditional Council’s special action request for the gillnet to operate again in 2017. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Ninilchik gets approval for Kenai gillnet in 2017

The Ninilchik Traditional Council officially has permission to put a gillnet in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers again this summer, but with a few changes.

The tribe successfully conducted a subsistence fishing season with a gillnet on the Kenai River last summer after the Federal Subsistence Board granted a special action request. This year, the tribe has worked through discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ahead of the season to have species limits and fishing times sorted out before the salmon start running.

The Federal Subsistence Board authorized another Temporary Special Action Request for the tribe on April 3 setting out the parameters for the fishery in 2017, according to a news release.

The net had been approved and set into regulation in 2015, but Fish and Wildlife did not approve the operational plan the tribe needed to actually get gear in the water. Subsequently, the tribe sued to get the operational plan in place, resulting in the 2016 special action request that got the tribe about two weeks of fishing time in late July and early August.

Subsistence users upstream in Cooper Landing and Hope have complained that the net would take too many fish, robbing them of subsistence fishing opportunity. Guides and other Kenai River users have expressed concern that the net will indiscriminately take rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and king salmon, all prized sport species in the river.

“The Board believes that these temporary regulatory changes will provide residents of the community of Ninlchik with the Federal subsistence harvest opportunity that was authorized in 2015, while at the same time addressing concerns raised by other communities about the potential impacts of the community gillnet fishery on their subsistence opportunity and providing protections for Chinook Salmon, Rainbow Trout, and Dolly Varden stocks,” the release states.

One of the primary worries upstream subsistence users had concerned the subsistence fishing caps on the river. The harvest of all subsistence users on the Kenai and Kasilof drainages is not supposed to exceed 4,000 sockeye, 1,000 late-run kings, 3,000 coho and 2,000 pinks, according to Federal Subsistence Board regulations. If the Ninilchik tribe had a gillnet in the river, which is a far more efficient harvest method than rod-and-reel or dipnet, then they could push the total subsistence harvest up to the limit more quickly.

The Fish and Wildlife Service addressed this in the special action request by removing Ninilchik’s harvest of late-run kings, sockeye, coho and pinks in the gillnet from being counted against the cap. Ninilchik Traditional Council Executive Director Ivan Z. Encelewski said the tribe is focused on sockeye, but it makes more sense to manage the subsistence fishery based on the permits available than a cap, which is only a small portion of the total harvest by the sportfishery or commercial fisheries.

Staff members at Ninilchik Traditional Council are the only ones that can operate the net. Community members submit their federal subsistence permits to the tribe to receive fish from the net. The designated fishermen can only harvest as many fish as the permits they have collected allow, which is 20 fish per household with five for each additional household member. That and the relatively small number of sockeye harvested in the fishery started the discussion on sockeye, which carried over to the other species, Encelewski said.

“It just made more sense to manage the fishery by household limits versus creating the annual limits that creates this competition between communities,” he said.

During a public hearing on the special action request held Feb. 24, multiple commenters expressed concern particularly for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden, which are present in the area. To help address those concerns, the changes require any fish of those two species caught alive to be released; those that die may be retained. Only 100 rainbow trout or 150 Dolly Varden can be caught in the net before the fishery will close.

That means that any time the net interacts with a rainbow trout or Dolly Varden, it counts toward the limit, regardless of whether they keep it or not, Encelewski said.

“(If the fishermen reach either limit, the fishery) closes for the entire season,” he said. “In no circumstance will more than 100 rainbow trout or 150 Dolly Varden hit the net.”

Ed Holsten, who represents Cooper Landing on the Southcentral Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Committee, said trout and Dolly Varden were a primary concern for the community, which is composed of a large number of fishing guides. In general, Cooper Landing was opposed to Ninilchik’s gillnet operation.

“Some people feel like there’s no place … for gillnetting on the Kenai,” he said, “I think most people are still afraid of the impacts to chinook and rainbow and Dollies. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is apparently comfortable with that plan, and there are some safeguards in their view.”

Commenters also expressed concern for Kenai River kings, which like many stocks around Alaska have been in low abundance for at least the last five years. The changes set an early run king season specific to the gillnet fishery from July 1–15 with a limit of two fish per household and one per each additional household member. Only 50 kings less than 46 inches or greater than 55 inches long can be retained, and only if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Optimal Escapement Goal of 3,900–6,600 fish longer than 34 inches from mid-eye to tail fork has been met. The forecast for the early run in 2017 is 6,500 fish, according to an April 4 release from Fish and Game.

The Board of Fisheries recently overhauled the management plan for early run Kenai River kings, a conservation effort spearheaded by three sportfishing organizations on the peninsula — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai River Professional Guides Association and the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition. The new regulations provide additional protection for early run kings, especially in the middle river between Slikok Creek and Skilak Lake, which is where the Ninilchik gillnet fishery takes place.

The discussions leading to the settlement agreement between Fish and Wildlife and Ninilchik Traditional Council took place in late 2016, as they were hoping to reach a final set of regulations at the Federal Subsistence Board’s meeting in January, so they did not take the new early-run king regulations into consideration, Encelewski said. However, the tribe did agree not to have a June fishing window because of Fish and Wildlife’s concerns for early-run kings, and the limits are fairly conservative — if the fishermen catch 50 kings, regardless of whether they are retained or released, the fishery will close until July 16.

The tribe is conservation-minded and would be open to considering changes during the final rulemaking process to set the permanent regulations for the fishery, which should be finished by the end of the year, he said.

“Part of (gaining acceptance) is going to be showing that the fishery is to target sockeye, and I think we proved that, based on the numbers,” Encelewski said. “I don’t think it’s going to create this big harvest of chinook or resident species.”

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

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