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Set netters forced to sit as fish board decides to keep protecting kings

Jill Burke

Fortune has frowned on Cook Inlet set netters operating near the Kenai River, where dismal king salmon returns have triggered state conservation efforts this season. But here’s the rub: A stronger than expected run of sockeye salmon is also entering the river, and while other user groups are harvesting a bounty of reds, set netters are locked out.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that more than 4 million sockeyes will return to the Kenai River this summer. The escapement goal, or the amount the department hopes to see reach to spawning grounds, is 700,000 to 1.4 million. At the same time, the Kenai king run is shaping up to be one of the worst on record. As of July 22, 7,909 fish had been counted entering the river. A year earlier at this time, 14,414 had gone by. Unless the run reaches 17,800, management guidelines call for the Upper Cook Inlet set gillnet fishery to close.

The Alaska Board of Fish met Thursday to talk about a handful of emergency petitions it had received by set netters desperate to take advantage of the strong sockeye run. Although many ideas were put forward about how the set netters could simultaneously fish for reds and avoid the kings, the board chose not to act.

"All we are talking about here is the last couple days of the season,” board member Vince Webster, a commercial set net fisherman from King Salmon, told the group during a morning teleconference. “It's too little too late."

Armchair quarterbacking

With state scientists managing the situation as best they can, armchair quarterbacking by the Board of Fish late in the season would be irresponsible, he added. 

Board Chairman Karl Johnstone shared similar concerns. One petition had come in more than a week ago. But another half dozen were filed less than a day before the board was scheduled to discuss the issue. "We might be setting a very unusual precedent here by considering these petitions at this time. It seems to me, (we) are rushing things a little bit," he said.

The set netters were asking for permission to fish between now and Aug. 1, when a new management period begins. Fisherman, even those turned down on Thursday, remain free to petition to the board to consider the August fishing schedules, Johnstone said.

Set netters have watched helplessly with dry nets and crew members they can't put work as other fishermen -- drift netters, dip netters and sport fishermen, have been allowed to harvest the surplus sockeye. Sport and personal use fisherman are not allowed to keep any king salmon that reach their nets. Drift netters, who had been shut down earlier this season, were brought in as a tool to try to relieve the pressure of too many reds entering the river.

But the set netters? They were out of luck. They traditionally fish closer to shore, where the kings tend to run, and statistically pull in more incidentally caught kings than drift netters. 

Disaster declaration?

It's a complicated situation to manage, and board member member Bill Brown asked the state to explain why one species of fish, king salmon, are getting all the attention. Yes, weak runs of kings are disastrous. But wouldn't flooding the river with too many reds be a disaster of its own, pushing the habitat beyond its capacity and potentially putting future runs at risk? 

"We take making goals very seriously.  Minimums are at the very top of our priority list," said Jeff Regnart, director of the state's Division of Commercial Fisheries.

On the same day the Board of Fish considered what it should do, Alaska Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, announced he'd sought an official disaster declaration from Gov. Sean Parnell. Too many Alaska fisherman, charter operators, hotels and restaurants had been harmed to overlook the economic impact, he said. 

One set netter hoping for a chance to fish complained that the closures had forced her, at age of 67 and single, to find minimum-wage work at a local cannery sorting fish for 12 to 15 hours a day. Nancy Richar wants to earn enough money to be able to buy herself a bulk-size propane tank, so she no longer has to lug around 100-pound containers of the gas. "Such a simple thing," she wrote in her petition, "but without fishing, I cannot do it."

'We need someone to care'

"We need someone to come and care about us while there still a few fish to be caught," she implored in her letter. "We sure don't like watching everyone else raking in the fish while we sit on our hands. If you don't like our suggestions, I suggest the state or board come up with a better one."

"The drifters are having a record season. The sport fish bag limit has been increased to 6 fish and the dip netters are allowed to fish 24 hours a day. All of this is happening while the traditional fishery (of set netters) have been waiting on the beaches," wrote another petitioner, JoAnn Wichers. "As a 30-year set netter in Cook Inlet, I humbly request an opportunity to fish."

Suggestions from the combined group of set netters included:

• Making sure set netters return live kings to the water;

• Fishing farther off shore instead of along the beach;

• Allowing set netters to also drift if they apply for a permit;

• Allowing set netters to change locations, temporarily, to be able to participate in the harvest.

Other petitioners questioned the salmon run assessment data used by the state's biologists in developing management strategies.  But in a 5-to-2 vote, the board moved to not take emergency action, and spoke in favor of a more methodical approach with more time to consider the suggestions offered.

"I would love to be able to fish in August and put in 10 to 15 thousand pounds," said Mark Vincent, one of the original petitioners, who calls fishing "hit or miss" since each year can be different. He's already spent $5,000 on fuel and gear to get ready for a season that has turned out to be a bust. One of his hired crewman has already returned to Anchorage, seeking other work. Another is just hoping for a way to buy a plane ticket home.

Back to day job

For now, Vincent has also returned to what he calls his day job -- construction -- to keep pulling a paycheck. A chance to fish in August might allow him -- and other set netters -- to at least pull in a fraction of what an entire season could have brought in, maybe ten percent. But with sockeye selling for around $1.50 per pound, every little bit helps, he said.

He understands the impetus to protect the king run. And he hopes there's a way both species -- sockeyes and kings -- can be managed to provide an ideal outcome.

"I'm not blaming anyone for the demise," he said, offering a final creative solution of his own. "I would be willing to pay thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to enhance the king fishery to be able to fish for reds."

His idea? Imagine what injecting one-and-a-half million king salmon fry into river could do to promote a rebound.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com