Some in drift fleet say fish board acting on bad info

While setnet salmon fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet potentially saw some easing of restrictions on their fishery at the Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings in Anchorage taking place the last 15 days, the drift fleet has not necessarily been so fortunate.

The setnet fleet got a one week reprieve from the so-called 1 percent rule, where their fishery is closed when less than 1 percent of the season’s total sockeye harvest is taken in two consecutive periods after July 31.

The start date for that restriction was pushed back to Aug. 7.

A similar proposal for the drift fleet was voted down by the board, which means the large number of sockeye that have been returning in August in recent years may get harvested mainly by the setnet fleet.

Both proposals, for both set and drift fishermen, were not only aimed at harvesting surplus sockeye salmon headed to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, which have been experiencing chronic over-escapement in recent years as sockeye salmon return later in the season, but also were looking to harvest underutilized pink, chum and coho salmon which also return later in the season.

The 1 percent rule was initially put in place for setnetters to prevent the harvest of coho salmon to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, prized by sport fishermen, and then was extended to the drift fleet.

Some members of the drift fleet, including United Cook Inlet Drift Association vice president Erik Huebsch, were frustrated by an incident where the board was given incorrect information about the sport and commercial harvest of coho which influenced the vote, and that the board declined to revisit.

Wrapped up in the whole decision about the 1 percent rule was a vote that may give the drift fleet one Cook Inlet-wide opening between July 16 and 31, rather than being restricted to Area 1, south of Kalgin Island, a measure that passed 4-3.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel told the board that the department was uncomfortable harvesting more than 60 percent of the coho run inlet-wide.

During testimony from ADF&G personnel, board members were given information that Huebsch labeled as “bad information, incorrect and misleading information, when they were discussing our additional district-wide opening.”

The board asked ADF&G personnel what the additional harvest of sockeye and coho salmon might be if the drift fleet were given an additional inlet-wide, instead of an Area 1 opening.

The quick answer was an additional 50,000 sockeye, and 2,500 to 5,000 coho, but a closer look at the numbers indicates that while the drift fleet would harvest an additional 50,000 sockeye, it wouldn’t catch any more coho, said Huebsch.

From the sport fish side of ADF&G, the board was told that the sport fish exploitation rate on coho in the Mat-Su is at 55 percent, which means it is bumping up against the ADF&G comfort level of 60 percent.

But Heubsch said he clarified the information with ADF&G later and was told “the actual overall sport fish exploitation rate on those northern coho was more like 12 percent, not the 55 percent that some board members had heard.”

“If sport fisheries have an 8 to 12 percent exploitation rate, and the commercial fisheries have a 10 to 15 percent exploitation rate, we’re still far, far away from the 60 percent that (ADF&G) is comfortable with,” he said.

The potential for one inlet-wide rather than an Area 1 opening that might produce 50,000 more sockeye salmon for the drift fleet is not a given, but would likely happen during the earlier part of the July 16-31 period, Huebsch said.

“The peak of the sockeye tend to be in the middle of July. In most situations if they give us that period it would occur early in the two-week period from mid to late July, rather than later.

“It’s not much of an improvement over what we had, but hopefully we’ll be able to harvest a few more sockeye.”

One issue that does not seem to get much attention at the Board of Fisheries meetings is why Mat-Su salmon may not be returning in historic numbers.

“The overwhelming problem with fish in the (Mat-Su) Valley is that their systems aren’t producing because of environmental and habitat conditions up there. There really hasn’t been a focused discussion about that, and how to mitigate those problems that are occurring,” Huebsch said.

Among those issues are invasive plant species such as elodea, culverts that block salmon passage, runoff from increased urbanization and invasive pike.

Huebsch expressed frustration in trying to get those issues addressed by the board, and the board relying solely on allocation and reallocation to deal with conflicts.

“If at some point if you don’t address the real problem, there won’t be anything left to allocate,” he said.

In other commercial fishing news, the halibut fishery will open as scheduled on March 11. There had been uncertainty around the start date due to a mandate from President Donald Trump that all federal agencies eliminate two regulations for every one put in place, as well as a 60-day hold on all federal regulations.

Also, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association is conducting a drill instructor course at the Best Western Bidarka Inn in Homer April 1 and 2.

Documented vessels of any size operating in federal waters are required to have a qualified drill instructor conduct monthly drills. The course is free to commercial fishermen.

The class involves donning a survival suit and entering the water in the harbor. It is preferred that attendees bring their own survival suit, but there will be suits provided if necessary.

Participants also should bring dry clothes and a photo ID.

Contact AMSEA at 907-747-3287 to sign up for the class.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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