Public battles over drift fishing corridors at fish board

To be or not to be is the question for the Upper Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishing corridor.

The corridor, which restricts Cook Inlet’s 500-some drift gillnet fishermen to fishing in a defined area out of the center of the inlet, was put into regulations during the 2014 Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting. The intent was to allow northern stocks, such as the Susitna River sockeye and Fish Creek coho, pass unimpeded.

The drifters would like to see the Board of Fisheries drop the regulations, saying it’s costing them millions in unharvested salmon and leading to too many sockeye escaping into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in recent years. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and other Mat-Su stakeholders want to see the corridor stay in place to allow more fish to pass through into the valley streams. The Board of Fisheries heard two days of public comment Friday and Saturday on a wide variety of fishery issues, but the drift fishery restrictions recurred throughout both days.

In a musical chairs-style presentation, six people from Mat-Su — including Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission member Howard Delo, assembly member Jim Sykes and former Board of Fisheries member Larry Engal — entreated the board to keep the corridor in place. Since the corridor went into effect, more coho salmon have been making it to Fish Creek and the Susitna system, the group argued.

“Data trends indicate that the plan is working as intended,” Delo said.

Sykes said in an interview afterward that he understood how the drift group felt, but the restrictions were necessary for the Susitna’s runs to recover.

“We see it as a long-term thing,” he said.

Sockeye returning to the Susitna River don’t have the same return-per-spawner ratios that the Kenai River has, either, said Andy Couch, the chair of the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee, in his testimony with the group.

Sport participation and harvest on Susitna coho and sockeye salmon stocks have significantly declined over the past decade. In 2008, the Board of Fisheries declared the Suisitna sockeye a Stock of Yield Concern, meaning that key indicator stocks failed to meet their escapement goals for at least five years. Although the stock has recovered some, sport effort and harvests are still relatively low, and Couch asked for the board to consider raising the designation to a Stock of Management Concern, one tier up from its current designation.

The drifters argue that the corridors unnecessarily restrict them and that the Susitna sockeye’s problem is in the river — primarily invasive northern pike. Pike are documented in lakes throughout the Mat-Su region, predating on juvenile salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is conducting a pike removal project on Alexander Creek and Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association conducts some pike netting efforts on the lakes where it operates, but until there is an areawide effort to eradicate pike, the returning salmon don’t have a chance to restore the population, several argued in testimony.

There are also documented pathogens in Shell Lake, a lake that in the past has been a major producer of sockeye salmon. In recent years, the lake’s population has declined precipitously, hitting a low of three spawners returning in 2015. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has been working with the fish, trying to collect eggs and stock the fry back into the lake to help supplement the population. In surveying the lake, CIAA detected two parasitic diseases that affects salmon. The organization also makes trips to notch beaver dams, which have also blocked fish passage.

Several drift fishermen argued that it doesn’t do any good to put additional fish into the system if the fatal flaw is in the spawning streams themselves.

“We can put all kinds of fish in the river, but it doesn’t matter if they’re eaten by pike,” said Dyer Van Devere, a drift fisherman from Kasilof, in his testimony to the board Saturday.

Drift fisherman Erik Huebsch of Kasilof argued that by restricting the drift fleet to the corridor, it blocks them off from the most productive area of the inlet where the fish have historically been in the greatest concentrations. The stock of concern status is based on data from a faulty weir system on the Yentna River, he said, which has since been removed and replaced by weirs on several lakes in the valley.

“To be clear, there would not be a stock of concern designation on Susitna sockeye had the Yentna sonar been operating properly,” he said.

The drifters also wanted to see the one-percent rule be abolished, restoring the full season in August. Currently, if the drift gillnet fleet fails to catch one percent of the total sockeye take in two consecutive periods after Aug. 1, fishing in the central and east side of the inlet automatically closes. The group from the Mat-Su valley wanted to see the one percent rule stay in place to ensure that coho salmon can get through to the northern streams.

Drift fishermen argue that the one percent rule robs them of big fishing days in August and contributes to overescapements on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. In an interview, Huebsch clarified that many drifters feel that the department has managed for the upper end of the escapement goal range, which is 1.2 million sockeye on the Kenai. The managers should be aiming for the midpoint of the range, which is better for the population, he said.

The Mat-Su valley advocates say the commercial fishery takes too large a percentage of the coho in the inlet. Population exploitation statistics from Fish and Game shows that the commercial fisherman take significantly more of the coho than the sportfishermen, a point the Mat-Su group argued should be more equal.

The Board of Fisheries concluded public comment Saturday and will pick up committee work Sunday at 9 a.m., beginning with proposals relating to Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management.

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

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