Board votes down out-of-cycle proposal for Cook Inlet set-netters
A split Board of Fisheries rejected a proposal from one of its members last week to loosen restrictions on Cook Inlet set-netters in 2022 — a bid to give set-netters some relief until the next regularly scheduled meeting on Upper Cook Inlet in 2024.
Sportfishing advocates, who sent in hundreds of comments in opposition to the proposal, say its defeat is a good thing for the conservation of Kenai River kings. Cook Inlet set-netters say they fear they've lost their last chance at salvaging part of their fishing season.
“It was particularly frustrating that we could not come away with some relief,” said Ken Coleman, a set-netter and vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association. “We won't see this board again until 2024.”
East side set-netters have paired restrictions with those of the Kenai River king salmon sport fishery. The Board of Fisheries introduced those restrictions in 2017 amid dwindling king runs because it said set-netters harvest more kings in their nets than the drift fishery.
The paired restrictions mean that when king counts are low and the king sportfishery is closed, set-netters aren’t allowed to fish, either. Under the current plan, both fisheries close 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 board wasn’t originally scheduled to take up proposals on the fishery at its meetings in Anchorage this month
But in October, it voted to fast-track a proposal from board member McKenzie Mitchell, of Fairbanks, amid concerns from set-netters they’d have another shortened season. Last year's season ended in July, before the peak of the sockeye run.
Mitchell’s plan would’ve allowed fishing within 600 feet of the beach if the late Kenai king run exceeded 13,500 fish, rather than 15,000.
But the board was split on that proposal at this meeting.
Some members said they worried the move was adding to a “death by a thousand cuts” for the fishery.
John Wood, a member of the board from Willow, pointed to documents submitted by set netter Amber Every that showed a low harvest rate of kings by set-netters.
“It’s very minimal. I mean, it’s almost nonexistent,” he said. “And if you say they’re catching too high, I would really like to hear what level you would be content with.”
Others didn’t like that the proposal was being considered out-of-cycle. Israel Payton, of Wasilla, said any impact to the dwindling king run would be too much.
“Just because you’re a CFEC (Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission) permit owner, you don’t own the resource,” he said. “And you have no priority over it than anyone else. It’s an opportunity given. We’re all equal stakeholders in the resource.”
The board voted 3-3 on the proposal, without a seventh member to make a tie-breaking vote. The seventh seat on the board has been vacant since Indy Walton, of Soldotna, stepped down earlier this year.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy was nearly two months past the deadline for making a new appointment to the board, which he did last week. But that appointment was not made in time for this week’s meeting.
Shannon Martin is executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. The group led a letter-writing campaign against the proposal, garnering over 400 comments submitted in opposition.
“The sportfishing association has been and always will be about conservation of Kenai River king salmon, she said. “It puts the board in a difficult position when it comes to allocative issues.”
Coleman, the set-netter, said the burden of conservation has not been divided equally. He’s worried about set-netters who might not see much of a season again this summer.
“Those of us who live here and work here and have been in the set-net fishery for years have nothing left if we can’t fish,” he said.
The next Board of Fisheries meeting on Upper Cook Inlet issues is 2024.