Cook Inlet commercial fishing groups are concerned about a potential lack of funding for studying the smolt out-migration on the Kenai River, a basic tool used to help determine future run strength.
There is funding for this year, but it is not currently included in the budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which is what the Legislature is currently working on.
While rumors that the Soldotna office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were given the choice to either get funding for the Kenai smolt-out or the Susitna River weir project are not accurate, ADF&G biologist Mark Willette in Soldotna said that the Kenai smolt-out funds were removed from the department's funding request given to the governor's office.
He said the Soldotna office submitted requests for both projects, but that people either at the Anchorage or Juneau level decided to include only the Susitna weir project in the governor's request prepared by the department.
"They didn't include the Kenai smolt," he said, "but we weren't given the option. It wasn't like they said 'which one do you want?'"
However, Willette said he agrees with the prioritization.
"The Susitna weirs, we have escapement goals for them, but we're no longer using the sonar to estimate escapement into the Susitna River, so we really need to have those weirs to manage the Susitna sockeye," he said.
Willette said it is too early to know whether the Legislature might still include the Kenai smolt-out funding.
"That's not clear, the Legislature is nowhere near being finished," he said. "All I can say is that the Susitna weirs were put into the department's budget that went to the Legislature, the Kenai smolt was not."
The lack of Kenai smolt-out numbers may hinder forecasting future run strength as over-escapements have stressed the system, causing some Kenai sockeye salmon to extend their stay in the fresh-water system.
"We found, particularly in the past two years, that we've had a particularly high number of six-year-olds coming back to the Kenai, which have really been the driver of the relatively good returns we've had," said Willette.
Those fish are ones that have spent two years in fresh water before out-migrating to the ocean, instead of the usual one year, and have spent three years in saltwater before returning, and are referred to as 2-3's.
Smolt data for the parent years of those fish have shown an unusually high number of age two smolt going out.
"The smolt data has been very useful for forecasting, particularly the past two years," Willette said.
He said that another forecasting tool ADF&G uses, called the sibling model, where they try to predict the number of six-year-olds that will be coming back based on the number of five-year-olds that came back the previous year, does not seem to work very well to predict the number of 2-3's that are coming back to the Kenai River.
Willette said that the lack of Kenai River smolt data could make predicting the run difficult, particularly if they continue to have high numbers of 2-3's.
He said that the effect of large over-escapements in 2003 through 2006 produced the shift in age composition of the smolt, because the density of fry in the lake increased competition for food, and the fry were not able to reach their threshold for out-migration in a single year. The department thought that effect would diminish in the period of smaller escapements in 2007-2009, but that did not happen.
The situation may not improve in light of the escapements of the past three years being above the upper end of the goal.
"Those higher spawner abundances may cause this shift in the age composition (of smolt) to continue," Willette said. "We'll have to wait and see."
United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Dave Martin said that will be pretty hard to "see" without funding for the smolt-out studies.
"Without the smolt-outs, they're flying blind," he said. "They have no idea what's coming back, not even a best guess."
State Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, is taking another run at trying to get the Legislature into the fisheries allocation battle with HB 18, "An act providing priority to personal use fisheries when fishing restrictions are implemented to achieve a management goal."
Stoltze tried a similar bill last year, HB 20, which failed.
While many see it as targeted at the popular Kenai River dipnet fishery, others think it may be a way for a Mat-Su Valley legislator to put limits over and above what the Board of Fisheries and ADF&G dictate on the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery to allow more fish into Valley river systems open to personal-use fishing, such as Fish Creek.
However, the bill also is causing concern for the Kenai City Council and other city officials, according to the Peninsula Clarion.
Kenai council members Ryan Marquis and Bob Molloy are afraid the bill would lead to another 24-hour dipnet fishery opening. If commercial and sport fisheries are closed and the personal-use dipnet fishery remains open, Fish and Game may move to open it for 24 hours during the month it is open to ensure enough fish are caught, Molloy said.
Molloy said the council has traditionally supported equal harvest opportunities for all user groups, and the bill would be a drastic departure from that. He does not support the bill, he said.
"Allocations should be based on science," he said. They should not be based on politics, he said.
Stoltze acknowledged that his bill may be unpopular in other districts where commercial and sport fishing are more prominent season-long than personal-use, but he is putting Alaska residents first by making personal-use fisheries a priority during times of fishing restrictions.
"I'm representing the point of view of a pretty broad group of users," Stoltze said, adding that people use the resource for food.
But the fisheries are more than a source of food for many families in Kenai -- they are a source of income, Molloy said. He said there would be an outcry in Kenai if the bill passed as is written.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.