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Setnet innovation may solve war between Alaska's commercial, sport fishermen in Cook Inlet

Craig Medred

For decades, commercial fisheries biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game fought the idea it might be possible to pass Kenai River king salmon through Cook Inlet setnet fisheries with minimal losses. But on Saturday, a commercial setnetter offered a ray of hope.

Appearing before the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage, Gary Hollier said he experimented with nets of shallower depth last summer and found they caught significantly fewer of the big Kenai salmon. The thinking is that the kings swim under the nets while red, or sockeye, salmon swim into them.

Hollier suggested that a modification to setnet gear might reduce that catch of the big fish by up to 80 percent. 

Reds are the backbone of Cook Inlet’s $30 to $40 million commercial fishery and the primary target of setnetters.

Setnetters' bycatch turns into crisis

A report from the state's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission concludes that more than 86 percent of the income from 736 permits to catch Cook Inlet salmon in setnets is linked to the sockeye catch. The contribution of the kings to the annual earnings of those permit holders? 

Four percent.

That setnetters catch a significant number of kings in their pursuit of reds has long been an issue for Kenai Peninsula sport fishing businesses whose success depends on the opportunity to fish for kings in the Kenai River -- and with average Alaska anglers who also want a shot at the biggest of the Pacific salmon. 

But the setnetters’ bycatch has become a crisis in recent years as king runs tanked. The setnet fishery in 2011 remained shut for almost the entire season to protect a weak run of kings. And when the setnetters were allowed to fish for limited periods last summer, the in-river return of late-run Kenai kings turned out to be the lowest on record

A newly lowered spawning goal of 15,000 fish was met, but just barely, and that came only after the in-river fishery was sharply restricted.

Tens of thousands of anglers killed only 1,619 kings, according to Fish and Game data. Meanwhile, final season data from the state agency put the commercial catch at 2,988 kings -- more than four times the 2012 commercial catch of 705, when the setnetters spent nearly the whole season on the beach watching fish swim past.

A firestorm promptly erupted.

The Kenai king run was being destroyed, sport fishing interests charged, and the data made it clear the good old days of fishing on the Kenai were dead. In 1988, the commercial fishery caught more than 15,000 kings in the Inlet, but the in-river sport catch exceeded 17,000 -- more than 10 times the size of last year’s catch. 

Sport-fishing interests quickly went on the offensive. Recognizing that more than 75 percent of the kings killed in commercial fisheries die in the nets of fewer than 750 commercial setnet permit holders, they floated an initiative to ban such nets in urban Alaska areas like Cook Inlet. An assistant state attorney general promptly decided voters didn't have the right to vote on such things -- even though the very first thing Alaskans voted on at statehood was a ban on fish traps, the setnets of their day -- and the initiative was rejected by Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Initiative backers have since filed suit against Treadwell to get the initiative on the ballot, and the Alaska Board of Fisheries has convened in Anchorage to hear Alaskans’ views.

"Possible solution?

The board appointed by the governor is charged with allocating salmon catches between commercial, sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries in the Inlet. None, at the moment, think they are getting enough fish.

Setnetters have lashed out at sport-fishing groups they believe want to put them out of business.

Against this backdrop, Hollier offered a possible third way. While others have asserted it’s unlikely anything can be done to create a cleaner setnet fishery that lands very few kings, he's been experimenting.

Pressed by sport-fishing groups, Fish and Game has begun a study to try to determine whether kings move through the Inlet at deeper depths than sockeye. Hollier got a good laugh out of the fishermen who packed Egan Civic and Convention Center when he mocked the study on Saturday.

"For $10 and a case of beer, I could have saved the state $650,000," he said.

Hollier has been experimenting with setnets that hang about half as deep in the water as traditional commercial fishing gear. Setnets are like curtains of monofilament hanging in the ocean. The top is held on the surface by floats, the bottom is held down by led weights.

The mesh is hard for fish to see. They swim into it head first. They get hung up by their gills and can't get out -- thus the description "gill nets.'' Opponents of gillnetting just refer to them as "curtains of death.''

Hollier fished both deep nets and his new, experimental shallow nets last summer. He said he caught 94 kings. Comparing the data for catch-rates of kings in the shallow nets versus traditional nets, he estimated he would have caught 12 -- an 87 percent reduction -- if all his nets had been shallow nets.

Asked by the board what it would cost for fishermen to fully convert to such gear, Hollier said about $500 if they were to buy the nets. But he added that he modifies the nets himself for "two bundles of twine at $12 each.''

Asked if shortening the nets hurt his sockeye catch, he said he didn't think so. On the best day of the season, he said that his family and crew landed 12,000 sockeye in their 13 nets.

200 signed up

"I believe,'' he said, "reds are running in the 6-to 10-foot range, and kings are running below that.''

If he's right, the board may have a new option to alleviate some of the pressure on the kings. It is certain to discuss this idea – especially after spending the weekend listening to Alaskans complain about the way things are now.

More than 200 people signed up testify at public hearings Saturday and Sunday, despite the attraction of the Super Bowl.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com