A group of commercial east side setnetters gather to discuss proposals at the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

A group of commercial east side setnetters gather to discuss proposals at the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Truth in numbers: Board of Fisheries debates sockeye escapement, increases inriver goal

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Board of Fisheries changed the upper tier of the inriver goal from 1.3 million to 1.1 million. 

Significantly behind schedule and deep into the mathematical weeds, the Board of Fisheries spent most of its first day of deliberations on one proposal to amend the escapement goals for Kenai River late-run sockeye.

The proposal, submitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asked the board to review the optimum escapement goal and inriver goal on the river for the late run of sockeye salmon. After several hours of discussion and back-and-forth amendments, the board passed a proposal eliminating the optimum escapement goal and increasing the ceiling of two of the inriver goal tiers.

The final language was intended as a compromise between sportfishing and commercial groups, from an amendment authored by board member Robert Ruffner. Commercial groups sought to eliminate the optimum escapement goal, saying it was redundant to the sustainable escapement goal, while sportfishing groups said it allowed managers flexibility during years of extremely large returns.

“One of the things that was in (the original proposal) was trying to manage for multiple goals,” Ruffner said. “One of the first steps was removing the OEG … the second point that I thought was increasing the upper end of the inriver goal.”

As adopted, the river will now be managed under a sustainable escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.2 million sockeye salmon and inriver goal with three tiers, based on the total projected run. The bottom tier, when total runs are projected less than 2.3 million fish, will remain the same. The middle tier, when the total run is projected between 2.3 million and 4.6 million, will now be managed for between 1 million and 1.3 million fish. The upper tier, when runs are projected to be greater than 4.6 million fish, will now be managed for 1.1 million to 1.5 million fish.

Ruffner said his intent in eliminating the optimum escapement goal was to simplify the management. Many people, both on the board and in the public, expressed concern about the complexity of the Kenai River’s escapement management during public comment and committee discussions.

In answer to a question from Ruffner, Fish and Game staff said it would be easier for them to manage within the now broader range. Commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields said the effect could be that when the managers are within the middle tier, the sportfishery allocation could increase by 100,000 fish, and 150,000 when in the upper tier.

Confusion over the mathematical and technical aspects of the escapement goals pervaded the day. The interlocking management of the Cook Inlet fisheries means that changes to the sockeye salmon management plan will lead to effects not only on the sportfishery but also on the drift gillnet and setnet fisheries and the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River. During the long breaks Monday, multiple groups brought language to amend the original language. The Kenai River Professional Guides Association submitted a possible amendment asking for a regulation automatically increasing the bag limit when the run is projected to exceed 4.6 million fish, but the board did not address it.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association submitted a substitute to raise the inriver goal tier levels but leave the optimum escapement goal in place if runs were projected to exceed 6 million fish, increased from the 4.6 million fish trigger. Board member Reed Morisky moved to make an amendment similar to KRSA’s suggested amendment, leaving the optimum escapement goal in place, but later withdrew it.

The only concern from the board was eliminating the optimum escapement goal. During initial discussion, board member Israel Payton said he was hesitant to eliminate it because of concerns for northern stocks like the Susitna River sockeye salmon, but later said it made him more comfortable and didn’t support Morisky’s amendment.

“I think we’ve heard a common theme to simplify (management),” he said.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association fisheries consultant Kevin Delaney said after the meeting that the inriver goal increase doesn’t technically increase the allocation — it only acknowledges that the sportfishery is bigger than it used to be, and allowing for the broader range is both easier to manage for and ensures that the managers will be able to meet their sustainable escapement goal after the inriver fishery harvest.

With the potential for more fish allowed into the river with higher goals, Ruffner said the board will carefully watch the potential for increased habitat damage because sockeye are bank oriented and most people angle from riverbanks to target them.

However, the commercial fishermen didn’t get their half of the compromise, which was the elimination of the mandatory Tuesday closure, known as a window. Ruffner attempted to amend a proposal that would eliminate both the Tuesday and Friday windows to only eliminate the Tuesday window, citing concerns from the public. Board member Sue Jeffrey supported it, saying it fit the allocation criteria. However, Payton and Morisky opposed it, saying the windows provided reliability for the sportfishery and personal-use fishery, allowing more sockeye to pass by the commercial nets to make into the river.

Ruffner argued that it was fair, in light of the now-increased inriver goal. He also said it would help decrease the use of the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a one-mile square area at the mouth of the Kasilof River, to control sockeye escapement into the river. When used, the area can get extremely crowded and has risks for king salmon also headed for the river, he said.

“We’re still going to manage for escapement goals, and in light of the fact that we just increased the inriver allocation by a fairly significant amount, that’s (my reasoning),” he said.

East side setnetter Joseph Person said the intention was that the inriver fishery would get a slightly increased allocation in exchange for the elimination of one of the two windows. However, the proposal to eliminate the Tuesday window failed on a 3-4 vote, with chairman John Jensen, Ruffner and Jeffrey supporting it.

The board concluded deliberations before taking on any additional setnet proposals. They were set to take up proposals related to the one percent rule in the setnet fishery Tuesday morning.

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

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