Federal subsistence groups upriver from a controversial subsistence gillnet have asked that the Federal Subsistence Board rescind its 2015 decision to allow it.
The Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community has filed a proposal change in the 2017-2019 Federal Subsistence Board proposal book that would eliminate Ninilchik Traditional Council’s gillnet on the Kenai River. The gillnet, the Cooper Landing and Hope filers said, has a direct impact on them.
The gillnet has not yet been in the water on the Kenai after the operational plan was not approved last summer and fishing for king salmon was prohibited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager.
“We maintain firmly that the Federal Subsistence Board’s approval, which allows Ninilchik to place a community gillnet in the Kenai River, aggrieves the federal subsistence priority and right of Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence users,” the proposal states.
The subsistence users echo biologists’ concerns that the gillnet is not “consistent with sound management principles and the conservation of healthy populations of fish and wildlife.”
“The nonselective nature of a gillnet does not allow for close management or control of fish harvests by either the subsistence user or river management personnel,” reads the proposal, “and will likely result in chinook harvest numbers that are above sustainable population levels.”
They also said the gillnet creates a priority for one set of subsistence users, which is specifically forbidden by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established subsistence laws in the state in 1980.
According to ANILCA protocol, authorities must give equal priority to subsistence users in the same area. Because they both fish the waters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence fishermen are entitled to the same gillnet allowance.
However, conservation concerns take the forefront.
“While we firmly maintain that (the gillnet) adversely affects our subsistence priority by allowing Ninilchik an exclusive priority to place a community net in the Kenai River, we do not believe allowing all three communities to place a gillnet in the Kenai would rectify this adverse effect,” reads the proposal.
Cooper Landing and Hope subsistence users claim in their proposal that the Ninilchik Traditional Council already has a host of methods and means of harvesting fish including rod and reel and dipnets, but the council underutilizes them.
Only 2 percent of 807 year-round Ninilchik residents aged 20-69 applied for federal fishing permits. This excludes those who applied for a gillnet permit on the Kasilof River, which was passed by the Federal Subsistence Board and put in the water during the summer of 2015.
In Cooper Landing in 2015, 40 percent of 214 resident 20- to 69-year-olds participated in federal subsistence fishing. In Hope, 21 percent participated of 149 residents.
“An increased participation rate by the community of Ninilchik alone in the other available subsistence fishery methods and means on the Kenai River using selective gear will most likely result in a more than sufficient harvest result,” the proposal reads, “without the burden of incidentally targeting other fisheries with conservation concerns.”
The Ninilchik Traditional Council gillnet has caused a heated and tangled legal battle.
In January 2015, the Federal Subsistence Board, a multi-agency board that governs Alaska subsistence use, allowed NTC two community subsistence gillnets, one each on the federally managed portions of the Kasilof and Kenai rivers in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The proposal allocated 4,000 sockeye — a small portion of the total Kenai River sockeye run — but king salmon form the center of the debate. State and federal biologists advised the board against passing the proposal over conservation concerns. In an era when king salmon are at a statewide low point, they said, a gillnet could indiscriminately snap up valuable king salmon along with the sockeye.
As a condition, NTC would have to submit operational plans for each gillnet. The federal in-season manager, Jeffry Anderson, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, must approve the plan before either net can go in the water.
The proposal passed 5-3, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voting against.
Few besides NTC itself appreciated the gillnets. State and federal biologists opposed the gillnet idea on conservation grounds. More than 700 requests for reconsideration have flooded the Office of Subsistence Management urging a repeal; the previous record for such requests of a single proposal was six.
Anderson reviewed and approved an operational plan for the Kasilof River sockeye gillnet on July 13, but did not approve the operational plan submitted for the gillnet on the Kenai River. In an emergency order, Anderson also closed all chinook fishing in the area, including subsistence fishing.
Anderson argued that while the early chinook run did meet the lower end of the escapement goal, the low statewide numbers for chinook returns merited a conservation-minded approach.
NTC Executive Director Ivan Encelewski said there were no conservation concerns, and that Anderson unfairly halted the fishery for political reasons. With a week to go in July, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game liberalized commercial fishing time for sockeye salmon and allowed the recreational take of Kenai River chinook salmon based on estimates that the minimum escapement goal would be met.
The Ninilchik Traditional Council submitted two requests on July 17 and July 21 asking the subsistence board not only to rescind Anderson’s orders, but to remove Cook Inlet area subsistence fishing from the federal in-season manager’s authority. Further, NTC wanted to rewrite the proposal, requesting that the federal manager be forced to accept their operational plan.
At a July 28 meeting in Anchorage, the board upheld Anderson’s decision to deny the operational plan and kept him as the manager of the fishery despite the council’s request to remove him.
The special action request failed on a tie vote. Last fall, NTC filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior seeking to order the Kenai River operational plan approved and to remove Anderson as the FWS manager for the refuge. The suit is ongoing.
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.