KENAI — As hundreds of people were watching the start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage, a few blocks away the Alaska Board of Fisheries finished up its decision-making on fish policy that affects thousands.
The 14-day meeting that wrapped up Saturday included public testimony and board deliberations on some 211 proposals concerning Upper Cook Inlet finfish dug into the commercial fisheries, but left the sport and personal-use fisheries pretty much unscathed.
The mood inside the boardroom Saturday was tense. Sport and commercial fishermen sat on opposite sides of the aisle for the majority of the deliberations, sometimes murmuring under their breath about certain board members’ allegiances or leaving the deliberations to take a breather during the final decisions on policy.
Commercial fishermen were especially upset on the board’s decision to define a “fishing period” as a time period open to commercial fishing not to exceed a 24-hour calendar day in terms of the “1 percent rule” Saturday.
The 1 percent rule was created as a management tool to minimize the catch of coho salmon when low numbers of sockeye salmon are being caught. The rule states that if after July 31 there are two consecutive fishing periods where less than 1 percent of the sockeye run up to that point is caught, the eastside set net fishery closes and drift gillnet fishermen fish in designated areas on the west side of the inlet. Otherwise, the season ends Aug. 15.
Fisheries board vice-chair Karl Johnstone, of Anchorage, put forward this definition and championed the change.
“Historically there have been some issues here of extending the fishing periods to a certain period of time that you’ll catch more than 1 percent of your harvest,” he said. “When there’s so few sockeye caught and so many coho caught maybe it’s time to turn it over to the in-river people.”
According to Robert Begich, area manager of sport fisheries for the Department of Fish and Game, the commercial fleet on average harvests about 4 percent of the coho run, 2.5 percent by setnetters and 1.6 percent by drifters.
Board chairman Vince Webster, of King Salmon, spoke against the restricted fishing period. He said the fixed closure window on Tuesdays for commercial eastside setnetters that the board passed on Thursday broke up the fishing periods enough that a defined fishing period was unnecessary.
“By fixing that window it takes away the department’s ability to manage for abundance,” he said. “We’ve tied the department’s hands with the fixed window and now we’re going to tie the department’s hands further.”
Webster lobbied the board to hold off on making more restrictions to the commercial fishery.
“Let’s let all these changes we’ve made take effect,” he said. “Why can’t we hold off for another three years? The department understands now that we have a real concern of them going out there if the majority of the fish are coho and there’s not very many sockeye.”
But, other board members, like Mike Smith, of Fairbanks, were convinced a fishing period needed to be defined.
“The perception was that this rule because of the unclarity was not allowed to work in the way it was intended to,” he said. “I’m convinced that this particular proposal is an orderly transition for the fishery.”
The board passed the proposal 4-3.
Setnetters and drift fishermen alike are concerned this new definition of a fishing period will make the fishery meet the 1 percent rule sooner and close, or restrict, the season earlier.
“It might even be the nail in the coffin,” said David Martin, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA). “It was strictly allocative and punitive against the commercial fisheries.”
He said this restriction could lead to system over escapement, and in turn lead to poor future returns of fish.
“The industry cannot survive on that,” Martin said. “We’re being restricted so the in-river fishery just can play with those fish.”
Dyer VanDevere, a UCIDA member, said he was unhappy with the board’s decision.
The sport fishery’s “catch-and-release mortality on the Kenai is more than what the commercial fleet catches.”
Paul Shadura, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, said that the board’s actions in terms of the 1 percent rule were a “travesty,” especially in light of the board’s actions this week to create a pink salmon management plan for commercial fish.
“Many parts of the beach will be closed down before we even have the opportunity to harvest those pinks,” he said.
Shadura said the 24-hour fishing period in relation to the 1 percent rule is a tremendous expense and loss for the industry.
“This is not just a negative situation for just Cook Inlet fisherman; this is precedent setting from this board on how priorities changed from one of biological management to one of social management,” he said.
But Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, saw the board’s actions as managing for biology. He said he was pleased with the passage of most of his organization’s proposals.
“The positive action on our proposals demonstrates our intent of acting in a very professional, scientific manner in the Board of Fisheries process,” he said.
Gease said the board did the right thing by clarifying the fishing period.
“I think it was unclear in regulation about exactly what the timeframe was and how you did measure the 1 percent,” he said.
There were a few proposals he would have liked to see passed in terms of the sport fishery though. He wanted to see the slot limit on early-run Kenai River king salmon repealed and liberalizations to retain smaller, jack kings and keep fishing, as well as a three-coho bag limit in August.
Gease said he intends to put at least some of those things into proposals again for the next meeting cycle in three years.
But Gease was not the only angler miffed by the board’s rejection of certain sport fish proposals.
Dwight Kramer, a private angler and head of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, had put forward a few proposals to conserve the king salmon runs, which were not passed by the board.
“This process seems to be consistent in that they continue to support economic opportunity over conservation concerns,” he said.
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