FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Board of Fisheries took a step Sunday toward rebuilding the king salmon run on the Yukon river by voting to prohibit subsistence and commercial fishermen from using gillnets with a mesh larger than 7.5 inches.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports most fishermen on the Yukon use nets with 8.5-inch mesh to specifically target big kings.
The goal of the regulation, which takes effect in 2011, is to allow more of the larger king salmon to spawn.
The Yukon River chinook run feeds the largest subsistence fishery in the state. It has shrunk in recent years. State fish managers have not allowed any commercial fishing the past two years and subsistence fishing was cut in half this past season.
Alaska fish managers also have failed to deliver enough king salmon to Canada two out of the past three years, as specified by an international treaty. Studies show most of the big fish in the chinook run are bound for Canada.
The decline in the chinook run prompted several advisory committees on the upper Yukon to submit proposals for a 6-inch mesh limit, which they said would allow more big fish to reach the border. The board amended the proposal to a 7.5-inch mesh requirement and voted 6-1 in favor of the change.
Studies presented to the seven-member board last week by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game showed the size and number of big kings are declining, and bigger nets target bigger fish.
Board member John Jensen of Sitka, who has been on the board for nine years and has twice voted against mesh size reductions, said it was time to do something.
"This will be a hardship on people (who have to buy new nets), but it's going to be a lot harder on people if these fish disappear," Jensen said.
Fairbanks board member Janet Woods, a Native who grew up in the Yukon River village of Rampart and is the newest member of the board, was the only one who voted against it.
"In my opinion, all gear types should be restricted one way or another and not just target one gear type," Woods said, referring to fishermen who use fish wheels.
Fishermen were split on the decision.
Andy Bassich, a subsistence fisherman from Eagle, said some upper river fishermen worry the 7.5-inch mesh nets will target the next-largest size fish, but he said reducing the net size was something that needed to be done, he said.
"It's a good step toward conservation," Bassich said.
But Tanana subsistence fisherman Stan Zuray, who co-authored the proposal asking the board to reduce net mesh size to 6 inches, said the reduction to 7.5-inch mesh will do more harm than good because the smaller nets will catch more 20-pound and 30-pound salmon than the bigger nets did.
"The last thing we want to do at this point is force a massive shift of all the net gear in the river to the very size group that is our hope to rebuild the run," Zuray wrote in an e-mail.