The Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) finished its Upper Cook Inlet meeting on February 14, 2014, after 14 long days of scientific reports, public testimony and deliberation. Nowhere else are fisheries managed through a more open, participatory public process than the one used here in Alaska. The process can seem arduous and sometimes turbulent but it is uniquely Alaskan.
Balancing competing demands in the fully allocated, fully utilized, mixed stock fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet, home to several thousand commercial fishermen and women, hundreds of thousands of Alaska residents and ground zero for the State’s tourist is a difficult and often thankless task. This Board confronted these challenges squarely, worked exceptionally hard, and took their responsibilities very seriously.
The most significant outcomes of this year’s meeting included:
- Management measures for Kenai sport and Central District commercial setnet fisheries during these times of historic low abundance of Kenai king salmon to ensure that minimum escapement goals will be met while reducing risks of abrupt and catastrophic commercial and sport fishery closures.
- Reconfiguration of fishing areas for the Central District commercial drift gillnet fishery to provide a conservation corridor for increased passage of sockeye and coho into Northern Cook Inlet.
- Voluntary incentives in the east side set net fishery for use of shallower gillnets intended to increase harvest selectivity for abundant sockeye while reducing interception of late-run kings whose low numbers limit set net fishing time.
- Fishing on abundance strategies put into Central District set and drift gillnet fisheries plans to harvest surplus Kasilof and late-run Kenai sockeye.
- New provisions for an orderly transition in early August from management of the Central District primarily for the commercial utilization of sockeye to management of the entire Upper Cook Inlet primarily for the sport and guided sport fisheries for coho salmon.
Kenai King Salmon Management
The Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan as amended and adopted is neither a victory or defeat for either the sport fishery or the east side set net fishery, but is a clear victory for the conservation of late-run king salmon at current historic low run sizes. The BOF provided clear, conservation-based guidance for management of the commercial set net and the Kenai River sport fisheries during these times of historic low abundance of king salmon. Revisions to the Kenai River late-run king salmon management plan included:
- Paired restrictions for the sport and commercial fisheries to share the conservation burden during periods of low abundance, and
- Precautionary numerical fishery triggers based on king abundance, designed to provide for minimum spawning escapement.
Revisions to the king plan generally adopt into regulation the management measures taken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in 2013 based on concepts identified during the BOF 2012-2013 King Salmon Task Force. The new plan includes more time to fish set nets than was made available in 2013 – the higher time allowances afforded in sockeye management plans will never be reached during periods of low king abundance unless the fishery is prosecuted with no regard for king escapement goals. More than enough commercial fishing time is included in the revised plan to trigger early closures of both sport and commercial set net fisheries if this flexibility is not used prudently. At low king run sizes, the new plan actually favors the commercial fishery – effectively allocating a substantially greater share of the combined Kenai late-run king harvest to east side set netters.
Sockeye-Selective Set Gillnet Gear
The BOF adopted potentially-revolutionary provisions in the Kenai Late-run King Salmon Management Plan to incentivize voluntary use of shallower gillnets in the Upper Cook Inlet set gillnet fishery. Shallower nets are widely expected to be more selective for the surface-oriented sockeye than the deeper-running kings. Shallower nets have been widely utilized to reduce king catches in other areas including Bristol Bay but have not previously been widely employed in Upper Cook Inlet.
Drift Net Fishery Conservation Corridor
The BOF unanimously approved a number of changes to the Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan Management to increase delivery of sockeye and coho salmon through the central Inlet to the northern Inlet streams and rivers in order to provide for escapement and sport fisheries. Three essential strategies involving a combination of liberalizations and restrictions were employed:
- Fishing time and area was added prior to July 15 in the southern part of Upper Cook Inlet to increase harvest of surplus sockeye bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
- Additional opportunity was provided throughout the fishing season for use of terminal Kenai and Kasilof fishing sections designed reduce harvest of northern sockeye and coho. Terminal harvest areas was extended southwards to provide opportunities to the Homer portion of the commercial drift fleet.
- The drift fleet was moved away from the center of the Inlet to fish the near shore waters off the Kasilof and Kenai rivers from July 16 through July 31 in order to provide a conservation corridor for passage of northern bound sockeye and coho.
These changes follow management strategies successfully employed by ADFG in 2013 to move more sockeey and coho northward. Revisions were built upon new information on the effectiveness of the conservation corridor concept adopted inot the management plan in 2011.
Commercial Sockeye Harvest Opportunity
Additional revisions for the Central District drift gillnet and east side set net fisheries included wide latitude for ADFG to continue to manage commercial fisheries based on sockeye salmon abundance.
The drift fleet will no longer operate inlet-wide during regular fishery openers but is focused in specific areas to target specific stocks. Drift gillnet plan revisions included a number of liberalizations from the previous plan, specifically designed to increase opportunities for harvest of abundant Kenai and Kasilof sockeye. Under similar management strategies over the past two years, the drift gillnet fishery has enjoyed some of the most profitable salmon harvests on record while also effectively regulating Kenai sockeye escapements within target goal ranges.
Kenai late-run king salmon plan previsions for the set net fishery were specifically designed to provide the flexibility to fish on sockeye abundance.
Clarification of August Fishery Priorities
New provisions in Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan and Kenai Late-run King Salmon Management Plan also provide for an orderly transition in early August from management of the Central District primarily for the commercial utilization of sockeye to management of the entire Upper Cook Inlet primarily for the sport and guided sport fisheries for coho salmon.
The drift gillnet plan includes specific criteria for fishery closure based on declining catches at the tail end of the season, thus eliminating significant incidental or target commercial fishing for coho in August. The focus of the Kenai Late-run King plan on fishing sockeye at the peak of their abundance in July during periods of low king abundance will reduce commercial fishing in August when large female kings comprise a large portion of the run. This restriction is also expected to substantially reduce interception of early coho returning to the Kenai River.
The BOF also adopted a number of additional changes in other regulations for the east side set net fishery to increase opportunity to harvest sockeye. These included relaxing restrictions on the timing for a 24-hour no-fishing window identified in the Kenai late-run sockeye management plan, changing fishery closure criteria referred to as the 1% rule to extend Kenai set net fishing time in August, and removing a 600 ft. shoreline set back to protect coho in August from the commercial Pink Salmon Management Plan.
The BOF also adopted a number of additional king conservation measures for in-river fisheries including expansion of the protected slot limit for early-run Kenai kings, expansion of tributary mouth sanctuaries in the Kenai River, and a requirement for use of barbless hooks when the Kenai late-run king fishery is restricted to catch and release. This is the first barbless hook regulation adopted in Alaska.