Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 8:05 PM on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More to Cook Inlet fisheries than salmon

While the commercial salmon fishery in upper Cook Inlet provides the bulk of activity and revenue, there are ancillary fisheries that take place in salmon's shadow that get little notice.

These fisheries, along with salmon, are documented each year in the Upper Cook Inlet Annual Management Report produced by Pat Shields of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna. The 2010 report, which came out last month, is 190 pages long and full of interesting details and history.

For example, the commercial razor clam harvest on the west side of Cook Inlet, near Polly Creek, produced 380,000 pounds of clams (in-shell) last year, which sold for 62 cents per pound. Twenty-two diggers worked the beach on 56 different days between May 13 and July 27. The average sized clam was 5.6 inches long.

That is fairly consistent with the past few years. The 2009 season saw 20 diggers harvest 361,000 pounds at 62 cents per pound, with an average size of 5.5 inches. The 2008 season saw 21 diggers take 391,000 pounds for the same price, with an average size of 5.4 inches.

Clammers are allowed a 10 percent shell breakage, with the broken clams being dyed and used for bait. The minimum size limit is 4.5 inches, which would be considered an above-average sized clam for most personal-use diggers on the east side beaches around Clam Gulch and Ninilchik. Specimens as large as 12 inches have been found in Alaska, according toFish and Game. Cook Inlet is the northernmost range of the Pacific razor clam in Alaska.

Razor clams have been commercially harvested in Cook Inlet since 1919, with a harvest in excess of 500,000 pounds in 1922. The fishery has had a sporadic nature, with no harvests for as long as eight consecutive years, according to the management report. That was due more to market opportunity than product availability. There is no harvest limit by regulation; however, Fish and Game tries to keep the commercial harvest below 400,000 pounds.

Currently all harvesting is by hand, although regulations allowed for mechanical dredges prior to 1990 in some portions of the west side beaches. However, those operations were unsuccessful largely due to excessive shell damage and the limited number of clams in areas that were open to dredging.

Mechanical dredging is no longer allowed, but rusting, hulking remnants of the equipment littered beaches along Cook Inlet for many years. Some still remain, such as one in Chinitna Bay.

A limited commercial herring fishery has taken place in upper Cook Inlet since 1973, starting out as a bait-quality fishery and then expanding to a small sac-roe herring fishery in Chinitna and Tuxedni Bays in the late 1970s. The once-thriving sac-roe seine fishery in Kamishak Bay, which has been closed since 1998, is in the lower Cook Inlet management area.

A decline in herring stocks and a return of mostly older year-classes led to a closure of the Tuxedni Bay fishery after the 1991 season, and similar problems in Chinitna Bay led ADF&G to submit a proposal to the Board of Fisheries to open only those herring fisheries by emergency order beginning in 1993.

In 2010, 16.6 tons of herring were harvested by 13 permit holders, all of which were for personal use or sold as bait. Although the fishery is open to both set and drift gillnet, the harvest was exclusively taken by set gillnets.

Since the Prince William Sound and Kamishak Bay herring fisheries have remained closed for many years, the value of the Cook Inlet bait herring has increased in value and demand, fetching on average $1 per pound, or $2,000 per ton, far outstripping even last year's substantial price of $690 per ton for Sitka Sound herring. The herring are sold largely to sport and commercial halibut fishermen. The estimated ex-vessel value of the 2010 season was $33,000.

The 2011 herring fishery runs from April 20 through May 31.

There also has been a sporadic commercial smelt (hooligan) fishery since 1978, with harvests from 300 pounds to more than 127,000 pounds.

The fishery has been open for dipnetting only and has had active participants since 2006, and while only three permits were issued in 2010, down from a high of 11 in 2007, those three permits were responsible for a harvest of 126,135 pounds of smelt.

In the management report, Shields comments: "The harvest cap for this fishery is 100 tons, which easily could have been caught based on reports from those fishermen who took part in the fishery, as significant quantities of smelt were observed migrating up the Susitna River. Fishermen were able to dip net the fish in a relatively short period of time."

Shields says that estimating the ex-vessel value of the fishery is very difficult. Participants catch and market all of their harvest themselves. Most of the product is transported via boat to the Kenai Peninsula where it is boxed and frozen for shipment to the West Coast of the United States.

The vast majority of the harvest is sold as bait, with smaller amounts for human consumption. The final value of the smelt fishery is, therefore, unknown, but it easily exceeds $1 per pound, for an ex-vessel value of more than $126,000.

The management report also details the subsistence, educational and personal use salmon fisheries that occurred in 2010, along with the Beluga River Senior Citizen personal use dipnet fishery, adding some history along with the numbers.

Find the 2010 Upper Cook Inlet Annual Management Report at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/.

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