Northern District king salmon setnetters stay closed

Subsistence fishermen in part of the Susitna River drainage will be able to harvest a few kings, but commercial fishermen in Northern Cook Inlet will remain closed for now.

The Board of Fisheries considered two emergency petitions Monday related to the preseason restrictions of king salmon fishing in northern Cook Inlet after preseason forecasts indicated that the Deshka River would not see enough king salmon returning to meet its escapement goals. The board approved an action related to a petition from the Mt. Yenlo Fish and Game Advisory Committee, which requested limited subsistence fishing opportunity for king salmon on the upper Yentna River, and denied another asking for reconsideration of the commercial fishery closure from the Tyonek Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

In March, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order closing the Deshka and Yentna rivers to sportfishing for king salmon other than catch-and-release and closing the rest of the Susitna River drainage to sportfishing for kings entirely. The closure is based on small projected return of king salmon to the Deshka River — only 12,782 kings are projected to return, less than the lower end of the 13,000–18,000 sustainable escapement goal.

The Mt. Yenlo committee asked for a revision to the closure to designate a customary and traditional use for king salmon in the Yentna River because there is a small surplus of king salmon in the area that residents rely on. In the past, the residents have harvested king salmon under sportfishing regulations, but sportfishing is closed on the drainage this year.

Board member Israel Payton, who grew up in the area, said at the meeting Monday there are limited other opportunities for subsistence fishing in the area. Without the opening, residents would have to travel downriver to Tyonek, where there is more competition for resources.

“There’s really no opportunity,” he said. “There’s a couple little sloughs and potholes that once in a while have the opportunity to catch fish, but there’s really no opportunity.”

The board ultimately voted in favor of opening limited opportunity 5-1, with board chairman John Jensen voting against it. Board member Al Cain expressed concern about finding a customary and traditional use pattern in an emergency meeting. Member Robert Ruffner agreed, but said the subsistence action best suited the request.

The board unanimously denied the Tyonek Fish and Game Advisory Committee’s request. The committee wrote in its petition that the emergency order closing the fishery was only issued a few months before the closure, “blindsiding Northern District set netters.”

“Commercial fishermen were not aware that closure was being discussed, yet sports fish representatives were present during these talks were able to present their case,” the petition states. “We feel it was unfair that we were not given opportunity voice our concerns, while sport fish representatives were able to negotiate catch and release on the Deshka and Yentna, instead of total closure.”

Usually, setnetters in the Northern District of Upper Cook Inlet get four openings to directly target king salmon, though the overall take is relatively small — between 1,000 and 2,000 fish. The management plan for the commercial fishery pairs closures in the sportfishery on the Deshka River with restrictions in the commercial fishery.

The Tyonek advisory committee asked for the department to open the commercial fishery and monitor the run carefully, using data from the commercial fishery inseason to gauge the run. However, Upper Cook Inlet Commercial Fisheries Manager Pat Shields told the board that the inseason data available fron the northern district setnet fishery is not ideal for gauging run strength.

“It’s a very poor relationship,” he said. “The tides and weather really affect the commercial fishery. There could be a lot of king salmon out there and we open the commercial fishery on a Monday, and their catches are very poor. It’s been a very poor source of data inseason.”

Ruffner said though he understands the group’s concerns that by the time Fish and Game can evaluate the run using the Deshka River weir, the fish are already past the commercial fishery, he couldn’t support the petition because everyone is being restricted in the fishery this year. Payton agreed, saying the department should take precautions.

“Certainly (the forecasts) may (be wrong), but we do have some real-time inseason data that can indicate if the forecasts are wrong,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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