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Radical restructuring of Cook Inlet fishery may help downtrodden Mat-Su

Craig Medred
The Alaska Board of Fisheries surprised some by voting 7-0 in favor of a scheme to shift the area of Cook Inlet targeted for commercial driftnet salmon fishing, despite the objections of some commercial fishing groups. Andy Couch / alaskaoutdoorjournal.com

A radical restructuring of the way commercial fishermen harvest salmon in Cook Inlet is set to begin this summer under the terms of a plan hammered out Monday by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

The board surprised some by voting 7-0 in favor of the scheme, despite opposition from some commercial fishing interests. The outline for the proposal was created by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, which some contend is only trying to protect the interests of Mat-Su anglers and tourism businesses.

Larry Engel -- a member of the commission, a retired biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a former member of the governor-appointed Fish Board -- was not shy about admitting the group's interest in protecting red and silver salmon for the Mat-Su.

Sport fishing there has dropped to half of what it was historically, he said, because there are so few fish to catch. But, Engel added, nobody is trying to punish the commercial fleet.

He was hopeful that under the new plan, commercial fishermen would catch as many sockeye -- Cook Inlet's big-money fish -- from the Kenai and Kasilof rivers as in past years without putting the hurt on Mat-Su salmon. Seven Mat-Su salmon runs have been fished down to a level where they are now listed as "stocks of concern" by the state.

To get Susitna fish safely past commercial driftnets, the board voted to both shrink and expand fisheries.

Pushing Cook Inlet fleet south

The key components involved expansion of the mixed-stock fishery in the lower Inlet and the creation of new terminal fisheries along Cook Inlet's Kenai Peninsula shore. Mixed-stock fisheries are those that prey on salmon bound for a wide range of streams. Terminal fisheries try to catch fish bound for one specific stream.

Fisheries biologists are big fans of terminal fisheries, because they allow the flow of spawners headed for specific rivers to be carefully controlled. But the most mixed of Alaska’s mixed stock fisheries -- such as the commercial troll fishery off the coast of Southeast Alaska -- have been shown to be largely free of major risks to any runs.

The Southeast troll fishery catches king salmon from Southeast streams, British Columbia rivers, and major Pacific Northwest drainages. There are so many different runs of salmon moving through the fishery that the odds of catching enough fish from one specific stream to weaken one specific run are remote. 

By pushing the Inlet drift fleet farther south in the Inlet, it is hoped that Cook Inlet gillnet fishery will become more like the Southeast troll fishery. Whether the drift fleet can find and catch enough fish in the lower Inlet to make the plan work remains to be seen.

“Speaking with drifters over the years, this is an area where we don’t fish a lot,” Pat Shields told the board. Shields is the commercial fisheries biologist for the state in the area.

Homer gets help

The change does, however, come as a boon for the community of Homer, which is being hard hit by federal restrictions on its charter halibut fishery and feared it might lose its commercial salmon drift fleet to proposed lower Cook Inlet closures. Instead, pretty much the opposite happened. 

"Super," said Jim Lavrakas, the director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. "That's pretty exciting."

Whether all drifters will see the situation the same way remains to be seen. Arni Thomson, spokesman for the Alaska Salmon Alliance, a commercial fishing group, was not taking a position on the changes Monday, though he conceded that the ability of the fishermen to find the fish would be "the real issue."

Other than that, he said, "these are gear proposals. We are not involved in gear proposals and allocative issues, so to speak."

'Half-baked attacks'

Several hours later, the Alliance issued this public statement:

"Like many Alaskans, we are discouraged by the needless, unscientific attacks on the more than 5,000 Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and their families that have occurred over the last 10 days. These restrictions threaten an industry that pumps over $100 million in payroll directly into Southcentral Alaska’s economy every year. Alaskans cannot afford more half-baked attacks on our right to harvest our natural resources.”

The position there tracked with an Alliance attack on state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, in a four-page letter sent to board Fish Board chairman Karl Johnstone and board director Glenn Haight, along with a long list of legislators.

The letter, which basically told Dunleavy to keep his nose out of fish politics, blamed the politician and his staff for their role last year in stopping "a regular opening (that) would have spread the fleet throughout the Inlet. Instead, the fleet ended up concentrated in an area where coho (silver salmon) happened to be present. As a direct result of their interference, the fleet caught an above average number of coho. This illustrates what happens when ill-informed, politically motivated, so-called 'fish experts' manage the fishery."

Engel said the Alliance letter was referring to what was to have been an opening for sockeye salmon that resulted in a catch of 55,000 silvers and only 6,000 sockeye. The drifters don't really care which species they catch. Both are highly valuable.

'Mat-Su-centric'? 

The new plan the board approved on Monday has protections to prevent that from happening again, Engel said.  It has benchmarks to mandate area closures as sockeye catches start to fall and silver catches start to climb.

"What happened last year will never happen again," Engel said. "I think the board did the right thing. This takes away a substantial portion of the middle of the Inlet. They protected the fish."

Mid-Inlet is where the drift fleet has made its money in recent years. Boats focus fishing efforts on what can be a big ball of Susitna and Kenai river sockeye and silver salmon building between the mouth of the Kenai River and Kalgin Island in July. 

Drifters don't much like the idea of moving south of that known gold mine to fish, nor do they like fishing in crowded terminal areas along the Kenai shore.

Thomson, who signed the Alliance's Feb. 1 letter criticizing Dunleavy, complained that "Cook Inlet is not Bristol Bay. 

"There is neither the harvesting capacity nor processing capacity to conduct a commercial fishery in terminal areas in Cook Inlet. This would only serve to increase the commercial harvest of king salmon and further illustrates an ill-informed view of fisheries management and a Mat-Su-centric perspective on Cook Inlet."

State fisheries biologists do not expect the new terminal fisheries designed by the board to significantly increase the catch of struggling Kenai kings. That catch is largely aside from mid-Inlet issue with over harvests of Susitna sockeyes and silvers. 

Engel said the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission did try to meet with Cook Inlet drifters before the board action to see if the new plan could be tweaked to make it easier for the drifters to catch fish without threatening stocks of concern. Commercial fishing representatives didn't show up for the meeting, he said.

Thomson promised to get spokesmen for two drifters' groups to return phone calls seeking comment on the specifics of the latest board plan. The calls did not come.

One commercial group, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) is already in federal court arguing the U.S. government should take management of Inlet salmon out of the hands of the state and give it to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

There are plenty of hard feelings among the interests involved. The Alliance has been pushing the idea that Valley salmon stocks are in danger solely because of habitat degradation. The pitch has played well in the media, and there are indeed places in the Valley -- as on the Kenai Peninsula -- where development has damaged fisheries habitat.

Habitat or overfishing?

But as Engel noted, a quick look at a map largely puts the kibosh on the argument. Almost the entire west side of the Susitna River, including the vast Yentna river drainage, remains wild and undeveloped. The same can be said for much of the east side tributaries to the Susitna River. 

The problem, Engel said, is controlling harvest -- as has been well illustrated of late in the Pacific Northwest. Columbia River king salmon runs were long thought to have been destroyed because of the damming of that river and the development of farming on a scale unimaginable in Alaska. But last year, the Columbia fall run of king salmon was the largest on record.

"The revised expectation of over 1.2 million blows away the highest of hopes," Outdoor Life reported in October. "In fact, that's the largest run since the Columbia River dams were built and salmon counts began."

Habitat unarguably plays a roll in salmon production, but it's not the only issue. And the one thing that has again and again proven to be a sure threat to the species is killing too many salmon -- whether in sport, subsistence or commercial fisheries -- before they can spawn.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com