For decades, commercial fisheries biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game fought the idea it might be possible to pass Kenai River king salmon through Cook Inlet setnet fisheries with minimal losses. But on Saturday, a commercial setnetter offered a ray of hope. Appearing before the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage, Gary Hollier said he experimented with nets of shallower depth last summer and found they caught significantly fewer of the big Kenai salmon. The thinking is that the kings swim under the nets while red, or sockeye, salmon swim into them. Hollier suggested that a modification to setnet gear might reduce that catch of the big fish by up to 80 percent. Reds are the backbone of Cook Inlet’s $30 to $40 million commercial fishery and the primary target of setnetters.
A report from the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission concludes that more than 86 percent of the income from 736 permits to catch Cook Inlet salmon in setnets is linked to the sockeye catch. The contribution of the kings to the annual earnings of those permit holders? Four percent.
That setnetters catch a significant number of kings in their pursuit of reds has long been an issue for Kenai Peninsula sport fishing businesses whose success depends on the opportunity to fish for kings in the Kenai River — and with average Alaska anglers who also want a shot at the biggest of the Pacific salmon.
But the setnetters’ bycatch has become a crisis in recent years as king runs tanked. The setnet fishery in 2011 remained shut for almost the entire season to protect a weak run of kings. And when the setnetters were allowed to fish for limited periods last summer, the in-river return of late-run Kenai kings turned out to be the lowest on record.
A newly lowered spawning goal of 15,000 fish was met, but just barely, and that came only after the in-river fishery was sharply restricted.
Tens of thousands of anglers killed only 1,619 kings, according to Fish and Game data. Meanwhile, final season data from the state agency put the commercial catch at 2,988 kings — more than four times the 2012 commercial catch of 705, when the setnetters spent nearly the whole season on the beach watching fish swim past. A firestorm promptly erupted.
The Kenai king run was being destroyed, sport fishing interests charged, and the data made it clear the good old days of fishing on the Kenai were dead. In 1988, the commercial fishery caught more than 15,000 kings in the Inlet, but the in-river sport catch exceeded 17,000 — more than 10 times the size of last year’s catch.
Read the full story at the Homer Tribune>>