Some question value of Kenai sockeye optimum escapement goal

There’s one thing that people at the Board of Fisheries agreed on on Sunday — the escapement goal management for the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon is too complicated.

The river, which is the biggest producer of sockeye salmon in the Cook Inlet region, supports multiple commercial fisheries, a popular sport fishery and a personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth during July. Sockeye are the dominant species in all three fisheries, and the management plan regulating them dictates how many need to make it up the river at the end of the day to provide for adequate returns in future years.

The plan is layered with multiple goals and triggers, though, over a variety of ranges for different purposes. The Kenai River is managed for three goals, like concentric circles — the optimum escapement goal of between 700,000 and 1.4 million fish, the sustainable escapement goal of between 700,000 and 1.2 million and the inriver goals based on run size.

The inriver goal is allocative, based on sport fishery harvest above the sonar counter at river mile 19, and has three tiers. When predicted runs are less than 2.3 million sockeye, the goal is 900,000 – 1.1 million. At 2.3 million – 4.6 million, the goal is 1 million to 1.2 million fish. At runs greater than 4.6 million, the goal is 1.1 million to 1.35 million fish. Within that goal is included an allocation of between 200,000 and 650,000 sockeye for inriver users, based on the run.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game submitted a proposal to ask the board to review the optimum escapement goal and the inriver goal in general. The Board of Fisheries kicked off its committee process with the broad discussion, and many of the following proposals were intricately tied to it. The goal, which was set by the board in 1999, is up to the board members to review, said Tim Baker, the area research coordinator for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in the Southcentral region.

“The OEG was set for different reasons,” he said. “… Any decision regarding the OEG is the board’s decision.”

As with any proposal that affects allocation, the public was sharply divided over what should be done. Multiple proposals that followed asked for the board to remove the optimum escapement goal, and several others asked for changes to the tiers and structure of the inriver goal.

The commercial fishermen at the meeting want to see the the optimum escapement goal eliminated, and to see the commercial fishing managers shoot for the middle of the sustainable escapement goal range. Right now, they feel like the managers always shoot for the upper end, which is not the point of a range, said Erik Huebsch, the vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which submitted a proposal to eliminate the optimum escapement goal.

“When the department aims for the top end of the goal, they always exceed it,” he said.

Others feel like it’s not necessary or redundant. Tod Smith, an East Side setnetter, said the river has been within the sustainable escapement goal for the last three years, which makes the optimum escapement goal redundant.

“The OEG is the outlier on the Kenai,” he said.

Sportfishing advocates argued that more fish needed to make it into the river to provide for the fishery, and that the inriver goal is too low. Andy Szczney, who spoke on behalf of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, said guides had very poor success with sockeye in 2016 on the Kenai River.

“I’ve been fishing the upper river for 30 years,” he said. “(2016) was one of the lowest runs I’ve ever seen. I’d like the department to help me out and understand how 1.3 million fish (passed the sonar).”

The Matanuska-Susitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee didn’t support eliminating the optimum escapement goal, concerned that too few fish would make it north, said Andy Couch, chair of the committee.

“I think that it’s important that range for the Kenai considers the effect on Northern Cook Inlet,” he said.

The board members quizzed the Fish and Game staff about the particulars of the plan, trying to understand how the goals overlapped. Board member Israel Payton expressed frustration that the department didn’t provide options for the board members to work with, as the changes have the potential to impact different fisheries.

“The purpose of the department basically putting this proposal in there is to get rid of confusion between user groups, so I would think the simplest would be the best,” he said.

The optimum escapement goal went into place in the 1999 meeting as a way to give the department more tools to manage larger sockeye runs, Shields said. At the time, the managers were having a hard time hitting the sustainable escapement goal of 700,000–800,000 fish, so the optimum escapement goal gave them more flexibility.

However, now that the sportfishery and the personal use fishery have grown so much, they provide another management tool to help reduce escapement, and the optimum escapement goal may not be necessary, Shields said. It also confuses people, he said.

“We are just stating that we would be comfortable if the OEG were eliminated,” he said.

Fish and Game also wanted guidance on how to manage the escapement in the context of all the goals, said Matt Miller, the area management coordinator for the Division of Sportfish in the Southcentral region, in response to a question from the board.

“If we are exceeding one goal but projected to be within another, what action should we take on that?” he said.

The board wrapped up committee discussion on the sockeye salmon management plan by midafternoon Sunday and moved on to discuss proposals relating to changes in the late run king salmon management plan.

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

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