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Kenai king genetics results ‘unreliable,’ says ADFG

Posted: February 6, 2014 - 1:07pm

The Alaska Board of Fisheries began a marathon 14-day meeting on Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery issues on Jan. 30, and by mid-day Monday had voted on one of the proposals that most concerned the commercial fleet, No. 103.

The first day consisted of  Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff reports, all of which can be found at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.main. 

However, board members asked staff some questions that went into the record but are not included in the staff reports, and got telling answers.

Matanuska-Susitna region  Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who chairs the ADFG Finance Subcommittee, was instrumental last year in appropriating $875,000 for an acoustic tagging/genetics study of Kenai king salmon, and in a discussion about Kenai king salmon genetics, staff made it clear that the study was essentially worthless.

The genetics department of ADFG testified that, “the samples were no good and should not be used; the results were unreliable; and data are meaningless for this project.”

That led to a great deal of grumbling about other potential uses for that money. 

Currently there is no funding for smolt studies in any lake or river system anywhere in Cook Inlet, something that will hamper the ability of managers to predict, and therefore manage, future runs, according to David Martin, a drift fisherman in Cook Inlet for 30 years. Martin also serves on the board of Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and is on the Central Peninsula ADFG Advisory Committee.

“Smolt out-migration is the best indicator of future returns,” Martin said in his public testimony.

The cost of funding smolt studies for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers is about $150,000.

There also is a request in front of the Legislature to fund a $6 million sockeye tagging study, money Martin contends could be better spent for pike eradication efforts in the Mat-Su region.

That study would seek to determine the route and timing of various fish stocks, something that varies widely from year to year, seeking to be able to deploy the drift fleet more “surgically.” 

Many commercial fishermen deem the study useless.

Public testimony took more than two days, and was heavily weighted with commercial interests, many of whom urged the board to pay attention to the science, not rhetoric. Several Mat-Su area users and commercial sport guides testified, but none of them acknowledged any potential problems with in-river habitat or harvest problems. Many of them blamed commercial fishermen for their woes. 

One of the more powerful testimonies came from Debbi Palm, a setnetter whose family has fished the east side for 50 years.

Sitting with her father, Erik Barnes, Palm said, “We were here before Limited Entry (in 1972). We were here in 1970 when (there was) a full page ad in the Daily News to get rid of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet. We were here when Bob Penney bragged of having caught 240 kings in one season, and it wasn’t enough. We were here when we lost (harvest access to) all of the early Kenai kings, the Russian River sockeye run, the pinks and our coho opportunity. We watched as the king numbers became 40 to 60 percent jacks. We gave the sportsmen the early (king) run. What did they do with it? To us, this has simply been bullying. Certainly the run isn’t improving. The problem is in-river.”

Some testimony focused on the fact that putting the drift fleet in the corridor actually increased the harvest of Mat-Su-bound fish by putting nets in the water daily, sometimes for 18 hours per day, instead of giving them two 12-hour periods per week inlet-wide.

Genetic studies have shown that the catch of Mat-Su sockeye can actually be higher in the corridor, as well.

It also takes seven corridor openings, which dramatically increases expenses, for the fleet to catch as much as they do in one inlet-wide opening, according to data that was collected by ADFG, but not shown to the board.

Once the board moved into the deliberation and decision-making stage of the meeting, the first proposal was one that was of particular concern, No. 103. 

The proposal had three parts: prioritize reaching the lower end of escapement goals rather than exceeding upper end; drop the “in-river goal” portion of the Kenai River management plan; and requiring ADFG to use all the tools spelled out in prescriptive plans before going outside those plans, essentially limiting emergency order authority.

The proposal was made by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

In staff comments, fisheries management coordinator Tim Baker explained that although it is not set out in regulation, the ADFG already prioritizes making sure that the lower ends of the escapement goals are met.

“Regulatory text that would be added ...  is unnecessary and provides no additional clarity to the department for fishery management,” he said.

That portion of the proposal failed. 

The board also chose not to drop the in-river escapement goal, even though the Kenai River is the only one in the state that has one.

The Kenai also is the only river that has seven different escapement goals: three tiers based on run size, and within those tiers a biological, optimal and sustainable goal, all of which are different, plus the in-river goal which puts sockeye into the river for sport harvest.

The board also declined to pass the third portion limiting use of Emergency Order authority, saying the ADFG already uses all the tools in the box before going outside the management plan.

The board then worked late into the evening on Monday and stunned the setnet fleet by voting 4-3 to increase the lower end of the Kenai River king salmon escapement goal from 15,000 to 16,600, in spite of testimony from ADFG that it would likely result in a loss of two to three days of fishing time for the setnetters and admonishment from Larry Engel, a Palmer resident who serves on the Mat-Su Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, that doing so would necessitate more use of the drift fleet and more interception of Mat-Su fish.

However, on Tuesday the question was brought up for reconsideration, and failed 2-5, leaving the minimum escapement goal at 15,000, at least for now.

The meetings continue at least through Feb. 13. Updates will be at www.homernews.com/seawatch, and on Twitter @blueboathomer.

Cristy Fry has fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com

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