These days, most emergency management rulings come in the form of a fishery closure. This week, however, Alaska salmon managers have declared an early opening of the setnet fishery on Cook Inlet’s Kasilof River — for the third time in three years as sockeye swarm the area, reaching escapement goals early.

The Department of Fish and Game counts the salmon heading upstream. Once they reach an optimum threshold for spawning (escapement), managers open the fishery to some mix of commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing. The risk of holding off opening the fishery is that too many fish spawning can lead to boom and bust cycles of fish. Managers count the fish to try to minimize fluctuations in biomass.

But this opening is not without controversy. For decades, anti-setnet activists have been targeting local setnetters, claiming that their bycatch of king salmon — a prize sport fish — is too high to justify the use of setnets for sockeye. Recently, the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures to bring a setnet ban to the state ballot in an effort to eliminate setnetting in urban areas. It could be on ballots as early as August 2016.

However, Area Management Biologist Pat Shields tells the Peninsula Clarion the king salmon running with the sockeye at this stage are not the same salmon that would be returning the the Kenai River, where recreational king salmon fishing has been closed.

He also noted that managers are careful to balance the commercial fishery’s needs with the needs of competing interests.

“We could have fished (Sunday),” he told the Clarion. “We have the escapement right now to fish (Sunday). We’re aware of king salmon concerns, so we’re delaying that by a day. If we didn’t have any concerns for king salmon ... we probably would fish all of the hours that we could.

Have you listened to this article via the audio player?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

Join the Conversation