Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet wait to be set to the a processor on July 11, 2016 near Kenai. On Tuesday, the Alaska Board of Fisheries discussed proposals for Northern District setnetters. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet wait to be set to the a processor on July 11, 2016 near Kenai. On Tuesday, the Alaska Board of Fisheries discussed proposals for Northern District setnetters. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

No change for northern district setnets

Despite a suite of requests for both further restriction or liberalization of the commercial set gillnet fishery in the northern district of Upper Cook Inlet, not much will change in the near future.

The fishery, which takes place between a line drawn between Boulder Point and the Kustatan Peninsula and the Knik Arm, has a limited number of participants and is only allowed to operate on Mondays during a directed king salmon fishery in May and June and for a maximum of two 12-hour periods per week after June 24. Due to the large tides in the area, they may not be able to fish for all the hours in those periods, either.

Northern Cook Inlet’s salmon stocks have been in trouble for a number of years, with extensive annual restrictions on the inriver sportfisheries due to low numbers of coho, sockeye and king salmon returning. Northern district setnetters have also had their hours cut — of the 12 hours they were allowed for the directed king salmon fishery, they were restricted to six hours in 2016.

On Tuesday, the Board of Fisheries took up a group of proposals related to northern district setnets and rejected all of them.

Only three of the proposals got serious discussion. Board member Israel Payton proposed an amended change that would tie gear allowances in the northern district setnet fishery to sockeye salmon escapements into Chelatna, Judd and Larson lakes, the only locations in the Susitna River drainage with weirs. Payton’s proposal would convert the current sustainable escapement goals into optimum escapement goals with similar ranges.

The intent was to make sure the escapement goals stayed comparable in the drainage after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommended new goals.

“It’s not raising goals compared to status quo right now,” he said. “It does keep them from being lowered … it does lower the range by roughly 25-30 percent on all three of them. Lowering the upper bound does lower the range of the goals.”

The escapement goals were the main point of contention. There’s not much escapement data in the Susitna drainage — only those three weirs keep track of sockeye escapement, and Judd Lake’s weir was not operated last year because of funding constraints. On top of that, they’re not really used for inseason management because of the run timing and how long it takes sockeye to get up into the systems, said Commercial Fisheries Area Management Biologist Pat Shields in answer to a question from the board. The managers have the authority to reduce gear between July 20 and Aug. 6, but because of run timing, they almost never know the escapement in time to use the window, he said.

“It’s not real in-season management,” he said. “It is taking a look at it post-season and seeing what happened. If the runs to those weirs happen to be early, there’s a possibility that we could make all three weir goals during the gear reduction (window).”

Fish and Game recommended a lower sustainable escapement goal for most of the systems in Upper Cook Inlet, with the exception of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. The revised goals are the product of a new escapement goal determination method described in a 2014 analysis, which found that many of the old sustainable escapement goals may be over carrying capacity. As a result, Fish and Game recommended lower escapement goals for many stream systems in Lower Cook Inlet and Kodiak during this regulatory cycle.

In the Mat-Su Valley, where many people feel there aren’t enough fish making it into the systems to spawn anyway, this has caused controversy. Members of the Mat-Su Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission raised issue with the lowered goals in testimony and in committee work earlier in the meeting. In a document submitted to the board from the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission, the group said Fish and Game has removed counters and lowered goals in the drainage.

“That’s the opposite methodology expected for an ailing fishery,” the document states.

Payton and board member Robert Ruffner expressed strong concerns about any systems still operating on the old goals. Commercial fisheries regional research coordinator Jack Erickson explained that the model isn’t stock-specific.

“But it’s the best overall model we have to develop an escapement goal based on limited data,” he said.

The approach, which board members and staff referred to as “Clark et al” after the lead author’s name, does provide one caveat — it may not apply to stocks with an average harvest rate higher than 40 percent. Payton said because the Susitna’s stocks do have average harvest rates close to that, the new goals may not be applicable to them. There’s also a wild card in the mix — a recent study found that Kodiak-area seiners are harvesting a large portion of Cook Inlet-origin sockeye, though the department hasn’t yet separated out how many might be Susitna sockeye.

“I believe it’s an appropriate thing for us to keep the (sustainable escapement goals) where they are by implementing an (optiomum escapement goal),” Payton said.

Director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelly clarified that the department was only lowering the goals because it aligned with the best science available at present. A common misconception is that the department lowers escapement goals to chase falling returns, he said.

“We’re not chasing anything,” he said. “I agree, this is a tough situation. These are data-limited stocks (to which) we apply the best science available at the time.”

The board ultimately voted against the move 2-5.

Another proposal asked for the board to close a one-mile area around the mouth of the Little Susitna River to commercial fishing. Only one commercial fishing operation would be affected — a setnet site — and the closure would add protection for Little Susitna stocks moving into the river, the proposal states.

Payton advocated for it, saying that although it would affect one setnetter, it was important to think of the whole river system. The department anonymizes fishery landing data, so the board didn’t have any information on how many fish the one site lands. Other board members said they didn’t think the one site would play a significant role in escapement. Board member Al Cain said with the wording of the proposal, it would close a fairly large area because of the high tide variation in the area. The board denied the proposal 5-2, with Payton and board member Reed Morisky supporting it.

The only other proposal that sparked some discussion was the question of whether to allow dual permit holders in the northern district to fish two nets, one per permit. Most of the board members expressed reservation about it, saying they thought it could add extra gear in the water, and failed the proposal 1-6, with board member Sue Jeffrey supporting it. An industry group, the Northern District Setnetters Association, submitted a document saying the board misunderstood the proposal and asked for reconsideration, which the board may take up Wednesday.

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

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