Report back: My take on the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries 2017

If you follow fisheries issues you probably know that getting on the Board of Fisheries can be; what’s the right word, challenging? One of the challenges is making sure that the Board remains balanced for the best interest of All Alaskans. Our charge as Board Members is to set regulations following the Alaska Constitution and the statutes passed by the legislature. The guiding legislation for Board Members is found in Title 16, Article 2 and it says, in part with minimal paraphrasing: The Board is for the purposes of conservation and development for the fisheries of the State of Alaska… and that we are to be interested in public affairs, use good judgment, have knowledge and ability in the field of action of the Board. It is a responsibility that Board Members take very seriously.

So what did we do this round? We took up almost 200 proposals that sought to make various changes to our fishing regulations in Upper Cook Inlet. We heard from the public in a variety of written and verbal formats and made our decisions over the course of a two-week meeting with no days off. It’s surprisingly hard work. Here I want to take this opportunity to provide my perspective on a few of the key changes we acted on. As always, it is your responsibility to seek out the current regulations and follow them.

Personal Use – Dipnet Fishery. For most of the public, the changes we enacted will go unnoticed. We did close a section of river to dipnetting from the bank where sensitive tidelands are susceptible to damage, leaving the area on the south side of the river by the Warren Ames bridge parking lot open for a potential restoration effort to fix the accruing damage. We did ask ADF&G to consider closing this by emergency order if they view it necessary, but we chose not to close it by regulation, as that could put a chill on the effort to raise funds for restoring and improving this access point.

Kenai River King Salmon. ADF&G developed a new approach to count only “Big Kings” for both the early and late-runs. One of the main reasons for this change is those fish can be more accurately identified and distinguished from sockeye with sonar technology. Overwhelming public testimony and collaboration among non-profits demanded additional protection for early-run king salmon that also conserve some amount of late-run kings as well. The Board unanimously approved a new early-run king salmon plan that included setting a higher goal (an optimum escapement goal) than technical analysis suggested necessary. The Board substantially limited the harvest opportunity of older, larger age class fish. Throughout the summer, once king salmon make it upstream of a marker near the college they will not be exposed to bait fishing and king salmon larger than 36” may not be harvested; many of us hope this will help both early and late-run kings rebuild. For late-run king salmon, the Board gave the department additional flexibility to adjust the paired restriction rules that affect both commercial setnet and sportfishing regulations when trying to balance the harvest of sockeye when king salmon runs are in low abundance.

Kenai River Coho. Near the end of July and beginning of August coho begin to enter the Kenai River. When commercial sockeye harvest begins to tail off a regulation known as the 1% rule triggers the end of the Eastside Setnet fishery; this rule is straight forward, but requires a lengthy explanation. I will simply say that the rule previously started on August 1st; the board changed that date to August 7th. The practical effects are that the setnet fleet may gain additional fishing time in the first half of August compared to years past. With this change ADF&G estimated that the commercial fleet may harvest approximately 5% of the Kenai River bound coho while the inriver sport fishery may harvest approximately 50-55% of the Kenai River Coho. Perhaps the most important fact is that Kenai River coho salmon are not formally assessed and we are making judgment calls without the kind of data that everyone would prefer.

Cook Inlet Drift Fleet. This merits some mention even though the changes were minimal. The Board approved a change to the area drifters are allowed to fish during one of their regular 12-hour openings in the latter half of July. During certain run strengths, the drift fleet may now be allowed one 12-hour fishing period district wide, in lieu of a period that was about one-half of the district. This is the time of year when Kenai sockeye often swim north of the mouth of the river before turning east toward the beach. This will allow the drift fleet some additional waters to harvest surplus sockeye salmon. It is unclear if this will result in any additional harvest of northern bound coho.

Again we took a great deal more action than outlined here. I wanted to provide some insight into my thoughts on what I believe the majority of the Peninsula Clarion readers would be interest in. No doubt others will have widely opposing views – I’m proud to be in a position to hear those views and use my best judgment for all Alaskans. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

Robert Ruffner is a member of the state Board of Fisheries.

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