ANCHORAGE — Commercial and sport fishermen bitterly divided over the allocation of diminishing Kenai Peninsula king salmon returns will take their concerns to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which began two weeks of meetings Friday.
Anglers want restrictions on commercial fishing to protect the livelihood of guides, hotels and other businesses that cater to fishermen seeking to catch a king with a rod and reel.
The seven-member board will consider 236 suggested changes in regulations in the Upper Cook Inlet during the sessions at the Egan Civic & Convention Center.
Public comment is expected to last three days. The board received nearly 500 public comments before the meeting.
“Everybody’s well aware of what’s at hand with this meeting,” said Katie Sechrist of the state Commercial Fisheries Information Office.
The state is predicting a king salmon run “well below average” this summer.
Set-netters who target sockeye salmon catch about 13 percent of the kings bound for the Kenai, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They use gillnets strung perpendicularly to the ocean beach to intercept salmon returning to rivers to spawn.
The forecast for sockeye is a better-than-average run that could be worth more than $80 million to the set-netters, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
Commercial fishermen claim it’s the sport fishermen who are hurting Kenai kings.
Frank Mullen, 68, who has fished with a set net for 49 years, said Bering Sea trawlers catch significant kings but that the sport fishermen are harming runs with hundreds of boats per day “dragging hooks through spawning beds.”
“The biggest elephant in the room is habitat concerns in the Kenai River,” he said.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is proposing “paired restrictions.” If guides and anglers had to cut their catch, so would other fish users, said Ricky Gease, executive director of the association.
“What we’re seeking if, for instance, the river goes to single hook, no bait that there are stepdown measures in the personal-use fishery, the marine-recreational fishery, and the commercial set-net fishery,” Gease said.
The group wants the Fish Board to consider limits on the number of nets and shallower nets that allow deep-swimming kings to escape.
The Alaska Sport Fishing Association wants a ban on set-net fishing.,
“ASFA, with great sorrow and empathy for those who will suffer, respectfully recommends to this Board that all commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet and in those areas that would substantially diminish the flow of fish to this area be terminated,” the Anchorage-based association said in a comment letter.
The board will also consider proposals for the Susitna River and Knik River areas such as Jim Creek.