Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 6:52 PM on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Board of Fish considers upper inlet proposals

The Board of Fisheries started a 14-day marathon meeting session this week to take up Upper Cook Inlet issues, a process they enter into every three years.

While the board generally sets aside four to six days of meetings for most areas, this cycle of UCI includes more than 200 proposals, most dealing with the sport, personal-use and commercial salmon fisheries in the entire Cook Inlet drainage, many of them involving a great deal of public input, thereby necessitating an extended meeting.

As usual, there are proposals to restrict and/or liberalize commercial, sport and personal-use salmon fishing on all the river systems, with high emotions on both sides of the argument. However, much of the sparring will come down to sockeye salmon escapement in the Kenai River, the dominant river in Cook Inlet.

Commercial fishing organizations are on the side of reducing the current escapement goals for the Kenai River, arguing that too many spawners have caused the past few years of depressed runs. And, in fact, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has produced its own data showing that there can be too much of a good thing.

Fish and Game has produced a statistical chart called a Markov Yield Table, which shows how many spawners in a brood year produce a given return, taken from averages for the years from 1969 to 2005. That table indicates that the highest rate of return to the Kenai River is from an escapement of between 600,000-800,000, producing a ratio of 6.6 returning salmon for every spawner.

The escapement goal for the Kenai River is set up under a three-tier system, with larger escapement goals for larger runs, with the low end, runs of less than 2 million sockeye, having a goal of 650,000 to 800,000. The upper end, for runs more than 4 million sockeye, calls for an escapement of 850,000 to 1.1 million.

The Markov Yield Table shows that with 1.1 million spawners in the brood year, it is probable that three sockeye will return for each spawner.

The brood years for the recent low harvests in Upper Cook Inlet saw escapements of as much as 1.5 million sockeye in the Kenai River. The Markov table puts yields from brood year escapements of 1.2 to 1.4 million Kenai River sockeye at a return of 2.1 fish per spawner.

Commercial fishermen question why, if the three-tier escapement goal is such a biologically sound model, the Kenai River is the only one in the state managed under such a system.

However, using the high catching capacity of the commercial fleet to manage the Kenai River for maximum sustained yield can impact other fisheries, including struggling runs in the Susitna River drainage, as well as sport and personal use fisheries on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and coho and king salmon stocks. Hence the battle.

Every move made to increase stocks in the Susitna drainage means restricting commercial fishing for Kenai- and Kasilof- bound fish by the drift gillnet fleet, making it harder to control the escapement. Establishing "windows" of commercial fishing closures prior to the weekends to allow predictable opportunities for in-river users does not take into account the unpredictable nature of fish runs, tying the hands of managers who need flexibility in order to properly manage the runs.

Public testimony was taken early in the week, and showed the complicated nature and cultural differences imbedded in the arguments.

Jim Colver, a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly and vice chairman of the Mat-Su Sportsman's Committee, called attention to the dismal salmon returns in the valley.

"Members of the board, all our salmon species in the valley are in crisis," he said. "Returns of king salmon have declined significantly over the last decade. In 2009, nine of 16 systems failed to meet minimum escapement. In 2010, 13 of 15 systems failed to make minimum escapement.

"The (Matanuska-Susitna) Borough believes that the sustainability of the Northern District salmon runs have been placed at risk by the harvest of northern-bound salmon within mixed salmon stocks."

Colver brought up an argument that is getting more and more attention: Which user group generates more financial benefit.

"We believe the fishery management systems of Upper Cook Inlet are out of step with the economic and cultural realities of today.

"Management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon continues to be driven by commercial fisheries despite greater economic value and participation in sport and personal use fisheries," he said.

Homer commercial fisherman Paul Mackey countered that argument.

"I consider myself a small business man," he said. "I pay taxes, provide jobs, both directly in deckhands, who are mostly local, and indirectly, through local jobbers and suppliers.

"It is my belief that by endorsing and embracing maximum sustained yield ... you'll actually be making the best possible choice for all user groups.

"This is not about removing one user group to favor another," he continued. "It's about providing the best opportunity for local citizens to make a living, contribute to their local communities, and to provide food for their families table and allow ample opportunity to recreate."

Mackey also pointed out that pike, many of which were introduced by humans, are a leading cause of the depressed runs in the Valley.

"You can put all the fish you want into that system, and still not solve that problem. Before another fish gets re-allocated to this area, they should be required to clean up this mess that they've gotten themselves into."

Seawatch will be covering the on-going Board of Fisheries meetings, which run until March 5. Check in regularly at www.homernews.com for updates.

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