Board of Fish will consider revisions to set-net regs next year
The Alaska Board of Fish will consider a proposal to loosen restrictions on Cook Inlet set-netters this March, two years ahead of its scheduled meetings on the fishery.
At a work session last week, the board decided against fast-tracking several proposals from Kenai Peninsula set-netters, aimed at addressing fishery closures before the board meets on Upper Cook Inlet in 2024.
But it did vote to fast track a proposal from board member McKenzie Mitchell, of Fairbanks. If passed, it would allow fishing within 600 feet of the beach if the late Kenai king run exceeds 13,500 fish.
“While I understand not all set-netters will have the ability to effectively fish at the 600-foot nets, it does give the department the tool to harvest the surplus sockeye that we’ve seen," Mitchell said.
East side set-netters had an abbreviated season this summer, since their restrictions are paired with those of the Kenai River king salmon sport fishery. The Board of Fish introduced those restrictions in 2017 because it said set-netters harvest more kings in their nets than the drift fishery.
Setnetters say they can fish for sockeye without taking kings and have been asking the Board of Fish to address those restrictions ahead of schedule, suggesting the board open fishing to set-netters with flagged nets, among other proposals.
Mitchell said the agenda change requests submitted by set-netters last week and the emergency petitions put forth this summer did not meet the criteria to push them forward before 2024.
“However, I do feel like this is an important issue, which I have stated on the record previously," she said. "So I’m pursuing it through what I believe to be the proper regulatory process.”
The proposal would close the fishery to set-netters if the late run of king salmon in the Kenai River dips under 13,500 fish. That’s the Department of Fish and Game’s sustainable escapement goal for the run.
Under the current plan, the fishery closes when there are fewer than 15,000 king salmon that pass through the sonar.
Late-run escapement hasn’t passed 15,000 kings since 2018. The last three seasons, fewer than 12,000 kings passed through.
Ken Coleman, a set-netter and vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, said he’s somewhat optimistic about the new numbers.
“I think it’s going to provide some opportunity for a reduced number of east side set-netters," he said.
He said not all set-netters would benefit because the fishery would only open to nets within 600 feet of the beach. That excludes those who fish between 600 feet and a mile and a half off the beach.
“It’s difficult to see a neighbor who’s maybe 600 feet away from you, or 700 feet from the beach not being able to fish and you are," he said.
Set-netter Ted Crookston said it’s important to specify that the goal is for a projected 13,500 fish if the proposal is to make any difference.
“It is a foregone conclusion that the SEG goal of 13,500 fish for large kings will only be achieved at the very end, or certainly very close to the end, of the season," he said. "To activate the 600-foot fishery at the very end of the season has no merit or value. The only way this proposal makes any sense or has any value, is if we’re using a 13,500 projected goal.”
Overall, he said he is appreciative Mitchell put the agenda item forward. He said she came to the Kenai Peninsula, as have other board members, to talk with set-netters about their situation.
Mitchell said there’s urgency to finding a partial fix to the problem amid the over escapement of Kenai River sockeye.
Last year, the sockeye run was overscaped by 1 million fish. Set-netters said it was painful to watch salmon swim past their set-net sites while they weren’t allowed to fish.
John Jensen, of Petersburg, said fast-tracking a board-generated proposal is a go-around from the regular process.
“For something this big — you think you’re cracking the door open a little bit here," he said. "You’re just specifically alluding to one citation in the rule book, in the reg bok. But once you get into that, you’re going to have to start looking at what it does to other regulations. So you’re going to start opening a whole Pandora’s Box. And you’re going to get into way more than you ever thought you’d get into.”
Jensen was one of two “no” votes on sending the proposal forward. Board member Indy Walton, of Soldotna, was a "yes."
“This is maybe some of the purposes of the board, not to make this a habit, but to be able to see a problem and be able to come together and potentially fix it," he said.
The proposal is for the 2022 season only.
The Board of Fish will consider Mitchell’s proposal at its Anchorage meeting between March 11 and 16, 2022. The deadline for comments is Feb. 24.
The board will meet to talk about other Upper Cook Inlet fishery issues in 2024.