The United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the industry organization that represents the Cook Inlet commercial drift gillnet fleet, and a number of UCIDA members acting as individuals have launched an attack on personal use and sportfishing in Cook Inlet through a series of nearly 50 proposals submitted to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. The BOF will meet to deliberate these proposals and others in Anchorage Jan. 31 through Feb. 13, 2014.
High stakes meetings of the BOF and headline news are nothing new to the “fish wars” in Upper Cook Inlet. Each side has aggressively sought to defend or gain share over the years. But UCIDA’s current attack on personal use and sportfishing is one for the books.
Four user groups compete for five abundant but fully-allocated salmon species: commercial (drift and set net), sport (unguided and guided), personal use and subsistence. Upper Cook Inlet is home to over 375,000 Alaskans or 60 percent of the state’s population. The complex mixed stock nature and competing user demands of its fisheries are unique among all those regulated by the Board of Fisheries.
The Board of Fisheries attempted to bring some order to the chaos in 1977. Policy 77-27-FB allocated fish “primarily” to sport users prior to July 1, commercial users from that date to August 15, and sport again after that. The department was also directed to manage the upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries to minimize the incidental take of “Susitna coho,” “Kenai king” and “early Kenai coho,” all of which are present in the marine waters during the July 1 to Aug. 15 time period. This policy stands today as 5 AAC 21.363.
The term “minimize” was also addressed in the later versions of the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan by providing prescriptive directions for the in-season management of Northern District coho, late-run Kenai king and early-run Kenai coho. Now these prescriptive management directives are found in the various sockeye, king and other step-down management plans for various drainages.
UCIDA and others begin their attack with Proposal 136 seeking to strip the Drift Gillnet Management Plan of 35 years of directives which have evolved over the years to ensure adequate escapement of salmon into the Northern District Drainages and minimize the harvest of Northern District and Kenai coho salmon in order to provide sport and guided sport fishermen a reasonable opportunity to harvest these salmon stocks over the entire run.
UCIDA seeks to remove the “conservation corridor” adopted into regulation in 2011, which provides the department specific instructions on how to allow salmon into the Northern District. In place of the corridor, UCIDA seeks to remove other sub-district designations requested by Fish and Game and add weeks to its fishing season. UCIDA also asks to lower the number of sockeye salmon required in the Kenai River so as to allow even more fishing time for the drift gillnet fishery. In a year of average abundance, this proposal would result in at least 500,000 fewer sockeye, coho and chum salmon reaching streams and rivers that support the personal use and sport fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet.
UCIDA and its members continue their attack with a series of proposals that dictate what they think the world should look like for personal use and sport fishermen. First, UCIDA seeks to reduce the limit for personal use by at least 50 percent and prohibit dip netting from boats. They then want to prohibit catch and release of all salmon all the time, prohibit bait and require barbless hooks. UCIDA followed up with a proposal to prohibit sport fishing for coho salmon on the Little Susitna River on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. UCIDA, the working folk love this one.
There are more, in fact almost 40 more, that seek to expand UCIDA’s opportunity or dramatically reduce the opportunity for personal use and sport fishermen. UCIDA might have chosen to forward a progressive suite of proposals to optimize fishing opportunity and economic value for its members while also acknowledging the legitimate but competing values of personal use, sport and other commercial fisheries. Instead, UCIDA proposes to have it all.
• Kevin Delaney is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish Director and is currently a fisheries consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.