Path forward after Kodiak sockeye genetic study unclear

A revelation that a large portion of sockeye harvested by Kodiak commercial seine fishermen originate in Cook Inlet may change the way the fisheries are managed, but no one’s quite sure how yet.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently completed a multi-year study taking genetic samples from sockeye harvested in the Kodiak Management Area seine fishery, about 70 miles southwest of Homer in the Gulf of Alaska. The study, which spanned the years between 2014 and 2016, found that a significant percentage of the sockeye harvested in that fishery were of Cook Inlet origin in two years, up to 37 percent in one year.

Cook Inlet fishermen have long theorized that Kodiak fishermen catch some Cook Inlet fish, but the study has provided hard data, at least for those years. The data, first presented at the Kodiak Board of Fisheries meeting in January, is the first time a mixed-stock analysis was conducted on Kodiak sockeye fisheries and was originally requested by the board as part of a longtime project to study stock composition in the Kodiak Management Area to further develop the management plans.

However, now that the data has confirmed the interception, the real question comes out: what happens now?

During public comments and deliberation at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the topic came up as a concern from drift gillnet fishermen. Although the Kenai and Kasilof river sockeye populations are fairly stable, sockeye stocks in the Susitna River system have been designated as a Stock of Yield Concern since 2008, meaning that they have consistently failed to meet escapement goals. Sockeye allocation is a sore subject between Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and Mat-Su sportfishermen — much of the deliberation at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting on drift gillnet restrictions took northern Cook Inlet stocks into account. If the Kodiak fishermen are harvesting large numbers of Cook Inlet sockeye, they could get dragged into the allocation fight as well.

At the tail end of its Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the Board of Fisheries briefly took up the topic to determine how to move forward. One of the key elements missing from the report is the individual stock classifications within Cook Inlet — all the stream systems are grouped together into one reporting group rather than listing Susitna, Kenai, Kasilof or other stocks individually.

The work to individually itemize each stock considers multiple criteria, including the sample sizes available, genetic identifiability, expected stock contribution to the mixture and value of the new information, according to a memo submitted to the board at the Kodiak meeting from Fish and Game principal geneticist Chris Habicht.

Board member Robert Ruffner request at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting that a day be added at the board’s 2017 worksession to talk about the Kodiak genetic study.

“I want to be cautious and deliberative and really thoughtful about how we do this, because any changes that we make are going to have implications in Kodiak,” he said. “… There are a lot of questions that aren’t really going to come to light until we sit down and talk about it in the worksession environment.”

He also asked for clarification that management plans are being followed. Kodiak is a complicated area, with multiple user groups, multiple species and 10 management plans, and Cook Inlet has at least half a dozen interlocking salmon management plans of its own. That may not be all, either — board member Reed Morisky pointed out that with more individual stock data, more areas may be involved as well.

Director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelly said he thought the board was following the management plans at present.

“I can unequivocally say yes, we are,” he said.

If Fish and Game further analyzes the data, it would make sense to separate the Cook Inlet group into Kenai, Kasilof, Susitna and other Cook Inlet, he said. Although it’s not really a new phenomenon, it’s based on better science, he said. When Ruffner and board member Sue Jeffrey, who fishes commercially in Kodiak, asked if the study could also be further honed down to Kodiak reporting groups, Kelly said one limiting factor may be the number of samples available.

“We could run and reanalyze them, and we’d have good information on how many of those are harvested in (the Kodiak Management Area) entirely across those three years,” he said. “The more samples we have, the more precision we have in our estimates.”

The researchers warned in their results that findings shouldn’t be applied outside the study years, that not all fishing areas were sampled and no sampling came after Aug. 29. They did state that the study indicated that the closer to shore fisheries were, the more likely they were to harvest local stocks.

The board agreed to add time for a discussion on the followup work at its 2017 worksession.

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

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