Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 12:40 PM on Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Board of Fisheries considers restriction to drift fleet

By Cristy Fry

The Alaska Board of Fisheries began deliberations on more than 200 proposals relating to the management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon stocks Monday, beginning with the commercial salmon management plans.

The board spent much of Monday afternoon revising the language of a board-generated action plan that removes the drift fleet from what has been an opening in the Kenai and Kasilof corridors and Drift Area 1 during the first period that falls between July 9 and July 15 and puts that fleet in an expanded corridor that draws a straight line between the outer corners of the existing Kenai and Kasilof corridors. That opening will fall on Monday, July 11, this year.

The purpose of the restriction is to attempt to allow more sockeye to pass through to the northern district and the Susitna drainage.

Taking away Drift Area 1 on that date is a substantial loss to the drift fleet. The board attempted to soften that blow by including language that allows managers to let the fleet fish in that expanded corridor as many days as fish abundance would dictate until the following regular opening. That opening will be in the regular Kenai and Kasilof corridors plus Drift Area 1. However, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Jeff Fox testified before the board that it was unlikely there would be enough additional fishing time at that point in the season to make up for the lost production.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association questioned the need for such a move, and submitted a letter to the board on Sunday that read, in part, "UCIDA would like to draw to the board's attention to the testimony of the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries manager, which specifically excluded drift gillnet harvest as a contributing factor to lost yield on Susitna drainage salmon stocks. As testified in Committee B on Feb. 24, the two main issues affecting production in the Susitna drainage were pike 'snakefish' predation on some systems, and over-escapement on those remaining systems that are driving salmon production in the Mat-Su Valley."

Commercial Fisheries Director Jeff Regnart said that he was there during that testimony, and while he agreed that pike predation is a problem, the statement about over-escapement may have been misunderstood.

"We're measuring from weirs right now (in the Susitna drainage) because the sonar has some apportionment issues," he said. "We're not depicting, or trying to paint a picture of over-escapement in the Mat-Su as to sockeye. More times than not we've been making our goals, since we began measuring the goals the past three years, but by no means are we saying 'over-escaped.' (UCIDA) might have their own opinion."

Regnart said if the intent is conservation of those stocks, which the Board of Fisheries has said it is, it is important to take a look at who is exploiting those stocks, and the drift fleet fits that bill, although it remains to be seen whether the impact on Susitna stocks will be measurable.

"During that time period (second week of July), drifters are the major harvesters of sockeye, and we feel that through anecdotal information, old tag studies, and now genetics, that during that time period, Susitna fish stocks are present," he said. "The question is, how many are present in that catch ... in an Area 1 opening the second week of July?"

UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw is unhappy with the restricted area and how the meetings are going so far.

"The Board of Fish seems to playing through some agenda, and they're not letting data get in the way of where they want to go," Maw said. "When data is requested by members of the public, those questions are either brushed aside and/or ignored."

Some of the data he is referring to comes from the genetic studies conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which UCIDA points out have shown that the drift fleet harvests, on average, 8 percent of the Susitna and Yentna sockeye during inletwide openings and 5 percent during corridor openings. The Yentna River has been identified as a stock of "yield concern." The classification refers to the lack of harvestable yield over and above the escapement goals.

UCIDA argues that the number of extra Yentna-bound sockeye needed to make the escapement goals is around 2,000, and a minor adjustment by the commercial fleet and the in-river users could have accomplished that without taking away potentially one of the biggest days for the drift fleet.

Maw said discussions in committee meetings last week to find other solutions did not go well.

"All through this meeting, the members of the Board of Fisheries has been asking us what kind of compromise would we make, and we have refused to offer much of any compromises because as soon as we make any suggestion as to a compromise, then they use that as something we want, or as something that is not subscribed to them, it becomes subscribed to us, and we end up in essence betting against ourselves," he said. "That apparently upset some board members."

The option of filing a petition with the federal government because of non-compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, something UCIDA won the right to do in federal court last year, remains on the table, Maw said.

"One of the things that MSA requires is that you have to do a socio-economic analysis of the decision, and here we have a potentially a $5 million decision being made about our biggest day, and there was no discussion about the effect it would have on the families that rely on this fishery, let alone the necessity of it. There was no discussion about the benefits to be gained from this."

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