With the approach of the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) of the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) in Anchorage at the Egan Center from January 31 – February 13, attention is turning towards Cook Inlet fisheries management, with particular focus on Kenai River king salmon. UCI salmon management is as complex a fishery to manage as any in the world, with multiple user groups that include subsistence, personal use, sport (guided and unguided) and commercial (drift gillnet and set net) as well as multiple salmon species (king, red, silver, pink, chum), steelhead, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
For salmon management in Alaska, a primary tool for fisheries management used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) is the use of escapement goal ranges as a primary objective for in-season management. As the season unfolds, fish management focuses on trying to assure that minimum escapement goals are met for all salmon stocks for conservation purposes and to allow reasonable harvest opportunities for all user groups, with the intent to have final escapements below the upper end of the escapement range for yield considerations. In mixed stock fisheries, achieving the lower end of the escapement goal normally take precedence over not exceeding the upper end of an escapement range. For example, a 2008 ADFG report on statewide sockeye management indicated that minimum sockeye escapement goals statewide were achieved 90 percent of the time, while the upper end of these sockeye escapement ranges were exceeded 50 percent of the time.
The policy for the management of sustainable salmon fisheries (SSFP) in 5 AAC 39.222 guides the development of fisheries regulations by the BOF and implementation by ADFG. In-season fisheries management that has escapement goal based objectives is one of the bedrock management practices that gives legitimacy to the assertion that salmon management in Alaska is sustainable. An integral feature of such management is the ability of ADFG to declare in-season restrictions and or closures for user groups when monitored escapements are not projected to meet minimum levels by the end of the run. The goal is to prevent overfishing to ensure future sustainability.
The SSFP states that public support and involvement for sustained use and protection of salmon resources should be sought and encouraged. One way the SSFP indicates to do so is to promote an understanding of the proportion of mortality inflicted on each salmon stock by each user group, to allocate the burden of conservation across user groups, and when it becomes necessary to restrict fisheries on salmon stocks the burden of conservation shall be shared among all fisheries in close proportion to each fisheries’ respective use.
Since 2002, ADFG data indicates that in eight of twelve years the highest source of fishery mortality for late-run Kenai River king salmon has been commercial set net harvest, with four of those years being 2010 – 2013; in 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2008 the in-river sport fishery harvest was higher. From 2002 – 2013, commercial set net harvest was 29 percent more than the in-river sport fishery harvest. By any measure of harvest data, commercial set netters are a primary user group that inflicts mortality on late-run Kenai River king salmon. The in-river sport fishery is also a primary harvester of Kenai kings, and is designed as the priority fishery in the Kenai king salmon management plan; while the personal use fishery does harvest Kenai kings, it does so at a level much less than commercial set netters or in-river sport anglers.
In 2012 and 2013, the Kenai River king salmon sport, personal use and commercial set net fisheries were restricted and or closed to harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon by in-season emergency orders by ADFG, based on in-season escapement data and projections that indicated minimum escapement for Kenai kings was not going to be achieved. In August, 2012 after a late surge of Kenai kings entered the river and minimum escapement was achieved, the commercial set net closure was lifted, though the season for sport and personal use king fishing had ended on July 31 and remained closed. The economic impacts in 2012 of the king restrictions and closures in the UCI king salmon sport fisheries was estimated to be $17 million while some $13 million in ex-vessel value shifted from set net harvesters to drift gillnet harvesters, with severe operating losses for set netters and those fish processors who buy from them.
In 2013, after projections for minimum escapement of Kenai kings was once again questionable, ADFG implemented in-season emergency orders that first restricted harvest in the commercial and sport fisheries (with closed king harvest in the personal use fishery) and then closed both fisheries near the end of July. Economic losses in the sport fisheries have yet to be released but can be expected to be on a similar level as 2012 while in the commercial set net fishery losses can be expected to be less than in 2012 as the end of season closure came after the bulk of sockeye salmon return had been harvested.
The 2014 UCI meeting of the BOF will consider proposals that deal with the fisheries management of Kenai River king salmon. A flaw in the current Kenai River king salmon management plans is that paired and prescriptive step-down measures for all fisheries that harvest Kenai River king salmon are absent. This forces ADFG to act outside the bounds of management plans when, due to in-season projections that indicate that the minimum escapement for late-run Kenai River king salmon is unlikely to be achieved, it becomes necessary to implement measures across all fisheries to share the burden of conservation equitably.
KRSA has offered proposal 209 for the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan (5 AAC 21.359) that seeks to share the burden of conservation through establishment of paired restrictions in sport, personal use and commercial fisheries to meet the sustainable escapement goal for Kenai kings. The proposal seeks to make explicit what step-down measures are to be taken by ADFG in all fisheries if and when achieving the minimum escapement is questionable; currently ADFG only has the SSFP to rely upon when considering what step-down measures to implement, which often has allocative implications for user groups. In Alaska, such allocation decisions are normally reserved for the BOF to configure and ADFG to implement.