On January 31st, the state Board of Fisheries will meet in Anchorage for two weeks to discuss Upper Cook Inlet fishing issues. Between now and then, we will be taking a look at what those issues are, and what sorts of proposals have been pitched to address them.
The Central Peninsula Advisory Committee has had several meetings recently. That’s the group that represents the varied fishing interests in the area; sport and subsistence users, the different commercial fishers and so on. They’re working through the hundreds of proposals submitted to the Board of Fish for changes in management policies and strategies, and voting to support them or not. In the coming weeks, we’ll dig more deeply into some of those proposals and who’s behind them.
But to start, I wanted a kind of broad overview of the state of things right now; so I went to Pat Shields, the commercial fisheries management biologist for ADF&G. He says management of the drift and setnet fleet last year was carried out with a disastrous 2012 year still in mind.
“The final result was, we ended up exceeding the escapement goal for sockeye salmon in the Kasilof River and going over the in-river goal in the Kenai River. We ended up pretty close to the escapement for the Kenai and, because of the strong return to the Kasilof, put about 500,000 fish in that system.”
Big sockeye runs to the Kenai and Kasilof were good news to the drifters and setnetters, but just like in 2012, a pretty bad run of king salmon forced managers to put the brakes on early.
In river sport fishers were hit hard, too. They had to stop fishing for kings almost as soon as their usual season began.
And so that continues to be the big problem. While the sockeye runs are doing fine, better than fine, actually, the kings are struggling. Now, in a perfect world, the comm fishermen would catch their sockeye, and leave the kings to return to the rivers. And that scenario might not be too far off.
A study conducted over the summer looked at how deep the kings are swimming as they get closer to the river. While that study didn’t track enough fish to justify any big changes, it did suggest that kings do run deeper in the water than sockeye, especially as you get farther out from shore, beyond where the setnetters work.
“What we don’t know is if where the setnets fish, if that difference in depth between the two stocks would still be the same as out in the deeper water. That’s something I’m sure will be looked at in future studies,” Shields said.
Another bit of knowledge gleaned from that study: once the fish get to the mouth of the river, they don’t just swim on up, eager to get to the spawning beds. The sockeye mostly do, but the kings just sort hang around. For days.
“(They’re) just going back and forth, out in front of the Kenai River; swimming up with the tide and back with the ebb tide, and some of the king salmon that were tagged did that for a number of days. Ten days, 12 days, 15 days,” Shields said.
Why? Who knows. It seems that for each bit of new information scientists confirm about king salmon, a dozen new questions pop up in the wake.
“Management, we’ve said for a long time, is as much art as it is science. There’s a lot of science that goes into what we do here. There are some remarkably talented folks that work for the department here that understand things about the biology of salmon that is just remarkable. That said, salmon don’t have a calendar. They don’t have a clock. And they surprise us,” Shields said.
Now, if they would just surprise us by coming back in bigger numbers.
Shields says he hopes the Board of Fisheries doesn’t make any drastic changes in how things are managed, but rather stays the course, to build up more knowledge to make the most informed decisions.