Fishermen vie for northern Panhandle sockeye

Fisheries panel votes 4-0 to give more opportunities to seiners

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Juneau gillnetter Jev Shelton is worried about seine fishermen picking off the sockeye salmon headed for northern Panhandle spawning grounds.

"It's a very basic and disturbing issue to the gillnet fleet," Shelton said Tuesday.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries decided Tuesday that seiners are entitled to more of those fish than before.

The hot zone for the contested hatchery sockeye is a mere six-mile stretch of shoreline at Hawk Inlet on Admiralty Island.

The number of contested hatchery salmon probably doesn't exceed 4,000 to 8,000 fish a year.

But both seiners and gillnetters interviewed Tuesday agree that the issue is a lot bigger than just the sockeye caught at Hawk Inlet.

Even subsistence fishermen worry about the fate of sockeye salmon headed back to the northern Panhandle spawning grounds.

"There have been several complaints in my community about lack of sockeye for subsistence for the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines.

"People have to eat," he said.

Seiners, however, feel that they've been losing out on their historic salmon fishing opportunities in Southeast Alaska for decades.

Since 1989, Hawk Inlet has been open to seiners, depending on the size of salmon runs, but they were only allowed to catch 15,000 sockeye there.

More of the sockeye at Hawk Inlet have been hatchery salmon, thanks to the Port Snettisham hatchery south of Juneau.

Bob Thorstenson, a Juneau-based seiner who runs the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, questioned the legality of counting Port Snettisham hatchery salmon against seiners.

The seiners got a 4-0 vote in their favor from the Board of Fisheries on Tuesday, which will now entitle them to more hatchery-raised sockeye salmon in the Hawk Inlet shoreline corridor.

The decision doesn't actually increase the number of salmon that the seiners can catch. It simply doesn't count hatchery-raised sockeye toward the existing 15,000 cap for the seine fishery.

The Juneau-Douglas and Petersburg local Fish and Game advisory committees voted unanimously in favor of the seine proposal, Thorstenson said.

But some gillnetters are upset because sockeye are the bread and butter of their northern Panhandle fleet.

The gillnet fleet encountered one of its worst years in recent decades in 2005, Shelton said Monday.

Giving the seiners the additional sockeye "takes fish away from the Taku River and Lynn Canal," added Thomas, who is also a commercial fisherman.

Thorstenson said he believes the additional opportunity for the seiners at Hawk Inlet will actually help the gillnetters.

Though the seiners will pick off some additional sockeye, they will really be getting more harvest opportunity on their target fish: pink salmon, he said.

That helps the gillnetters because too many pinks are clogging up the gillnetters' nets, Thorstenson said.

In 2005, "the sockeyes were swimming by unhindered while gillnetters picked pink salmon out of their nets," Thorstenson said.



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