It is a bit ironic, but the Salmon Policies Alliance Compass piece which ran this week in the Juneau Empire stated, “…the Kenai River is not at risk or in crisis…” Really? The very next day, the Kenai River and the East Side Set Net (ESSN) fishery were closed for fishing due to a dismally low return of Kenai kings. While there is a big run of red salmon, the Kenai kings caught by the ESSN has put the Kenai king run in jeopardy.
The closing of the river last week by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) was absolutely the right thing to do, it should have been much sooner. The seven largest kings ever caught came from the Kenai — each weighed over 90 pounds. Our Kenai kings are a world renowned national treasure. They must be protected. The extremely low return numbers of Kenai kings tell the tale — we must act now or these spectacular fish will be lost forever.
There are two means of commercial fishing for reds in Cook Inlet. There are about 640 Drift Fleet boats which fish two or more miles off shore.
Last year, the drift fleet proved they could harvest the reds without catching Kenai kings. Other than interception of North District reds and silvers, we have little problems with the drift fleet, since they catch few Kings. Earlier this year, we pled with the Governor and the Commissioner to not use the ESSN, but use the drift fleet as they did so successfully last year. Then, they caught 95 percent of the state’s red harvest goal.
The second means of commercial harvesting reds is the fixed-in-place “set nets”.
There are 750 set net permits in Cook Inlet – about 390 of them, known as the “East Side Set Netters,” who fish above and below the Kenai River — stretching from East Forelands to Ninilchik.
This is over 70 miles of nylon nets forming gates 600 feet apart and stretching one and half to two miles off the beach. They are lethal traps, few fish can get past them, including the majestic Kenai kings who migrate along the beaches in shallower water on their way to spawn.
This year the nets killed approximately 3,000 “reported” kings and the ESSN is now ironically suing the ADF&G for more fishing time. We have enjoined on the side of the state to disallow that request.
In June, the ADF&G projected a minimal Kenai king run, even less than last year’s record low return. Knowing this, the commissioner and department started off the season using the ESSN anyway.
Our big question is: Why didn’t they use the Drift Fleet like last year? That wasn’t a biological decision, what kind was it? The responsibility for Kenai kings not making minimum escapement this year lies with ADF&G and on the desk of the commissioner. Period.
The Salmon Policy Alliance piece refers to ‘economic factors.’ The following facts are clear. Per studies by the State of Alaska, University of Alaska and others, more than 80 percent of the salmon harvest allocated to commercial fishermen generates less than 20 percent of the economic value to our communities.
Cook Inlet anglers and dip netters get less than 20 percent of the fish and generate more than 80 percent of the economic value within our communities. In addition, the studies show the economic value to our communities of sports caught salmon is eight to 15 times that of a commercially caught one. We anglers get a minimal share of the salmon harvest, but produce at least five times the value of the entire commercial catch in Cook Inlet.
We can all agree on one thing — we need new policies for sharing and preservation of our wonderful salmon fishery. And, it’s about time the public receive our fair share. Maybe it’s about time for a public initiative to do so.
• Bob Penney is a founding member of the Kenai King Conservation Alliance.