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Kasilof setnet fishery to close, king salmon worries continue

Ben Anderson

An emergency order Sunday from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed commercial setnet fishing on the Kasilof section of the Upper Cook Inlet, one day before it was set to open.

The order closes fishing from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Monday, June 25, for those who would use setnets in the fishery to catch sockeye salmon. Unfortunately, due to increasingly dire numbers for king salmon returns, the commercial fishery is just the latest victim in a series of ongoing closures around the state, and one intended as a pre-emptive measure to boost those runs as the season progresses.

"(B)ased on the poor performance of Kenai River early-run king salmon stocks, as well as king salmon stocks in Cook Inlet and other areas of the state, it is likely that the Kenai River late-run king salmon stock will also experience poor performance and require conservative management," the order said. 

It added that the state hopes to see an escapement of between 160,000 and 390,000 sockeye salmon. Despite the sockeyes being the primary target of setnet fishermen in the Kasilof section, king salmon also frequently turn up in their nets.

The closure comes in the wake of Friday's closure on the Kenai River to king salmon sportfishing, leading to questions of why the river was closed to catch-and-release sportfishermen but -- at that point -- remained open to setnetters who were also pulling king salmon into their nets. Even though the kings are just a small portion of what the setnetters haul in, in a year with such low runs of king salmon, even a little is likely to hurt a lot.

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said that the setnet closure represented a step in the right direction for conserving the kings that both sport and commercial fishermen have a stake in maintaining:

The announced set net closure of the regular period on Monday is a good first step which recognizes the gravity of the situation and the sport fishery conservation actions. Now is a good time to enact king saving restrictions in the early part of the sockeye run when the sockeye numbers are low and restrictions are not overly costly to the commercial fishery. Given the low king numbers, we expect that significant restrictions will be required throughout this year’s commercial fishing seasons for Kasilof and Kenai sockeye. KRSA remains hopeful that by implementing conservative measures from the outset in both the sport and commercial fisheries, that both will be able to avoid potentially-disastrous closures later in the year.

The Kenai Peninsula isn't the only place experiencing dangerously low runs of kings, though. Out in Western Alaska, a battle is brewing between authorities and subsistence fishermen, as those who depend on the fish to feed themselves and their families are told that, in order to sustain the population of kings on the Lower Kuskokwim, they cannot cast nets. Nets and fish have been seized from those disobeying closure orders.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com