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Conservation of King Salmon now Squarely on Commercial Fisheries

June 22nd, 2012

Will king SALMON conservation trump economics in this year’s upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery?

This year’s Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) salmon fisheries are shaping up to be a management challenge like nothing in recent memory. Fishing for king salmon has been closed or severely restricted throughout UCI by Emergency Orders issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in response to record low abundance.

It remains to be seen what actions will be taken in the commercial fisheries to share the conservation burden for king salmon. As Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) has stated previously, all user groups need to share responsibility to conserve this resource.

In the Kenai, sport fishery managers took the unprecedented action of announcing sportfishing restrictions for late-run Kenai River king salmon before even one late-run fish has been observed. More typically, managers wait to assess run strength based on fish counts and catches as the run unfolds. However, on the heels of very poor runs of early returns of king salmon throughout Cook Inlet, the use of bait was prohibited in the lower Kenai River for all of July and the entire river above Soldotna was closed to king salmon fishing (closing about two-thirds of the area available to anglers to fish for kings). These restrictions are expected to reduce sport harvest by half or more, with an anticipated harvest savings of 3-4,000 king salmon.

By acting preemptively, sport fishery managers reduced the potential for even more severe restrictions later in the July season. Slowing king salmon harvests from the outset preserves the opportunity for a limited-retention sport fishery for late-run Kenai River king salmon throughout July even if numbers remain low.

On the other hand, waiting a week or two to assess actual run size could have led to going to catch-and-release or complete fishery closures later in July. If run strength turns out better than expected, bait can always be allowed back in. However, fish harvested early in July cannot be unharvested if run strength remains low. KRSA supports this precautionary approach to striking an effective balance between conservation needs and fishery opportunity in the face of significant uncertainty over this year’s run strength and difficulties in assessing escapement due to recent sonar counting problems.

Commercial fishery actions to protect late-run Kenai River king salmon have not yet been announced but significant restrictions will be required by the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon management plan. This plan directs that achieving escapement goals is the primary objective [5 AAC 21.363 (e)] and the burden of conservation will be shared among all user groups in close proportion to their respective harvest on the stock of concern [5 AAC 21.363 (a)(6)]. The UCI commercial salmon fishery typically takes 40-60 percent of the total annual harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon, with the vast majority going to the east-side set net fishery while fishing for sockeye salmon.

Commercial fishery managers will be under heavy pressure from their constituents to continue to provide opportunity to harvest the expected strong run of late-run Kenai River sockeye salmon. However, management tools for selectively harvesting sockeye and avoiding kings are limited:

*Significant reductions in commercial king salmon harvests can only be achieved by reducing emergency order openings (time restrictions) of the east-side set net fishery. Emergency orders are typically used to allow additional fishing time on days other than regularly-scheduled periods on Mondays and Thursdays.

*Area restrictions can include the entire upper sub district of the set gillnet fishery or be limited to the area around the Kenai River mouth.

*Use of emergency order authority will be most effective in mid-July at the peak of the run. Additional early and late season openers which catch proportionately many more kings per sockeye would be avoided.

*Liberal use of drift net corridor openings by emergency order throughout the season can significantly increase sockeye harvest with relatively low king catches. Drift net gear is much more selective for sockeye than kings in comparison to set net gear which is fished closer to shore where kings cannot run under the nets. An expanded drift corridor was successfully employed for the first time in 2011 to target Kenai and Kasilof sockeye while avoiding weak Susitna sockeye runs and northern-bound coho. As a result, in 2011 the drift fleet harvested 3.2 million sockeye with only 500 kings caught, while in contrast the east-side set net fishery harvested 1.8 million sockeye with a catch of 6,500 kings, which was larger than even the in-river sport fishery.

*Early liberalization of in-river personal use and sport fisheries for sockeye will be an option if we are truly concerned about exceeding the upper end of the in-river sockeye escapement goal.

UCI salmon management is a zero sum game and every management action has a consequence that invites a hailstorm of criticism from one sector or another. Failure to enact meaningful commercial reductions in king salmon harvest would place the conservation burden entirely on the sport fishery and risk long term problems due to low escapements. On the other hand, reducing sockeye harvest for king conservation will risk large sockeye escapements unless drift net, personal use and sport sockeye fisheries are liberalized. However, this shifts traditional allocations at the expense of the east-side set net fishery.

Requirements for king salmon protection actions in the central district of the UCI commercial fishery are complicated by problems with king run size estimation due to recent sonar counting issues. The late-run Kenai River king salmon management plan provides for commercial restrictions if the projected in-river return is less than the minimum escapement goal, but does not provide clear guidance for what to do when run estimates are uncertain or how the conservation burden should be shared under the current circumstance. This year’s situation has simply never been encountered before.

The UCI central district commercial salmon fishery began in earnest this week and will be gearing up during the last week of June and first week of July. The UCI northern district commercial salmon fishery has already been restricted in the face of low king salmon returns. Commercial fishery actions to protect king salmon in the central district have not yet been announced. The sport fishery has already implemented significant precautionary restrictions to protect king salmon. The management ball to protect king salmon is now clearly in the commercial fishery side of the court.

If you would like to voice your concerns regarding the commercial fishing industry sharing the conservation burden with other user groups, call ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell at (907) 465-4100 or email her at cora.campbell@alaska.gov.

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