Kenai Peninsula issues won’t be the only decisions before the Alaska Board of Fisheries as it considers the Northern District during its two-week Upper Cook Inlet meeting that began Jan. 31.
Northern District streams primarily flow through the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and that area contains the majority of the state’s listed salmon stocks of concern, or runs of fish that are not returning in the numbers managers expect are needed to keep the stock healthy.
The source of the Mat-Su salmon woes is unknown, some blame interception by commercial fishermen in the inlet, others blame habitat degradation, still others assert that the problem lies farther out in the ocean.
The borough, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, have worked to better understand salmon runs in the region and improve certain components of the habitat over the past several years, and fishing by all users has been restricted at some point.
Regulatory proposals submitted for the upcoming meeting address what the board can change in regards to those hypotheses — primarily fishing effort and escapement goals.
Much of the Northern District discussion will come up in Committee D, which is tentatively expected to be meet Feb. 10, with decisions made Feb. 11-13. Petersburg’s John Jensen will chair that committee, with Reed Morisky, from Fairbanks, and Talkeetna’s Tom Kluberton also participating. Members of the public will join them for the discussion.
Northern District proposals also will be discussed during other parts of the meeting.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has asked the board to create more escapement goals for area waterways, and also wants to change commercial fishing regulations farther south.
Some of the escapement goals also were proposed by the local advisory committee.
Jim Colver, a Mat-Su borough assembly member and vice chair of the fish and wildlife commission, said use of the expanded Kasilof and Kenai drift corridors, rather than fishing in the middle of the Inlet, would mean less interception of Northern District salmon by the commercial drift fishermen. Colver said that would give the fish a chance to swim north.
Fishing those corridors is less efficient, however, and drift fishermen generally oppose expanding their use.
Eventually, Colver said he’d like to see the Upper Cook Inlet management shift to more closely mirror Bristol Bay, where commercial fishermen target specific runs.
That would require a better understanding of where fish are headed as they swim through Cook Inlet.
Some genetic and migration studies have been done, including a 2013 tagging effort, but more is needed to have a complete picture of which fish are where.
Additional escapement goals could help managers understand what is needed to ensure future returns in the area, Colver said.
“How do we quantify, manage the fishery, without having those goals?” Colver asked.
Colver said the commission also doesn’t support the efforts to limit personal use fishing, or restrict in-river users.
“...from a standpoint of a lifetime Alaskan resident, and representing the people in my assembly district, Alaskans like to go fish,” Colver said.
Ideally, he’d like to ensure that all users had the opportunity to fish — commercial, and not just sport, he said.
The borough assembly also passed three resolutions weighing on the upcoming board meeting, which are similar to the commission’s priorities.
Those ask the board to conserve Northern District salmon by implementing regulations restricting the drift fleet to the expanded Kenai and Kasilof sections, oppose regulations that would reduce personal use fishing, and support establishing escapement goals.
Commercial fishermen, however, aren’t convinced that the Mat-Su stakeholders have proposed the right solutions.
United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw said that some Northern District salmon runs are stronger than users have acknowledged.
UCIDA has suggested that efforts to improve Northern District runs should focus on what can be controlled in that area, like habitat. The organization also has submitted proposals that would limit in-river catches of some Northern District stocks.
Maw also pointed to northern pike, an invasive species known to prey on juvenile salmon, as a major problem — and one that isn’t related to the commercial catch. Generally, his organization doesn’t want to see their fishing time or area changed.
“Restricting us has not solved a single problem for those folks in the Valley,” he said.
Maw said the numbers of fish bound for the Northern District aren’t substantially different inside and outside the expanded corridors around the Kenai and Kasilof, and the fish don’t seem to separate themselves enough to allow the drift fleet to target one stock in a particular area. That means that Bristol Bay-style management likely isn’t a realistic goal for the region, he said.
Maw also said UCIDA doesn’t support all of the new escapement goals being proposed, but would be interested in hearing from ADFG about establishing some goals for index stocks for the Northern District.
In a letter submitted as public comment, residents of Nikolaevsk also weighed in, asking for fewer restrictions in the drift management plans. The letter asks that the board reconsider Yentna-related concerns. According to reports submitted by the Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association, salmon returning to that river have been significantly undercounted.
The Nikolaevsk residents noted that they have a strong dependence on commercial fishing for their livelihood. The fishermen also asked that the board consider that pressure on the salmon resource has increased from Anchorage and Mat-Su residents, but that the drift fleet is limited in entry and has not changed.
The Nikolaevsk letter was just one of many submitted as official public comment to the board about Northern District issues.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy also wrote the board echoing many of the Mat-Su commission’s ideas — and noting that he serves on the finance budget subcommittee on Fish and Game, and will be aggressive in supporting his district.
His top goal, he wrote, was establishing a priority that meeting the bottom end of escapement goals is more important than worrying about exceeding the top end.
Dunleavy also asked for more escapement goals, further restrictions for the drift fleet and enhanced personal use fishing opportunity.
He also asked that legislators receive additional time after the end of the session to make proposals to the board.
Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.