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‘Average’ sockeye run forecasted for Upper Cook Inlet

Redoubt Reporter

The sockeye salmon run in Upper Cook Inlet is forecasted to be average this year, according to recent estimates published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Fish and Game projects a run of about 5.12 million sockeye in the inlet this year, with about 3.12 million available for commercial harvest.

But commercial fishermen in the area are still heading into the season with a high degree of uncertainty, and one fleet might not be gearing up at all.

Set-netters are already shut down for 2023, amid dismal king salmon forecasts. Restrictions on their fishery are paired with the king sport fishery, so when it’s shut down, the set-netters are closed, too. Fish and Game announced both closures in March.

The Upper Cook Inlet drift fishery is slated to open under state management like it did last season. But beyond that, management of a large swath of the fishery — known as the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ — remains a question mark after a federal council last month reached an impasse on choosing a new management plan for the area. That unprecedented lack of action means the feds get the final say on management of the fishery for the 2024 season.

Set-netter and Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said given the regulatory limbo, fishermen in both fleets will have to decide for themselves whether gearing up for the season is worth the costs, or not.

“At the end of the day, these are family businesses,” he said. “A lot of it will come down to, what’s your return expected to be? That’s a big part of it.”

When it comes to statewide numbers, Fish and Game is projecting Alaska’s commercial salmon harvest to be better than last year — mostly due to an increase in pink salmon. And according to the statewide forecast, Bristol Bay will continue to be a shining star for the state, with a projected commercial harvest of 36.6 million sockeye salmon in 2023.

Last year, Bristol Bay’s sockeye run broke records and was responsible for more than 80 percent of Alaska’s total sockeye harvest, according to Fish and Game’s statewide forecast, with a total 60.5 million fish.

Fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, on the other hand, harvested fewer than 1.2 million sockeye last year. East-side set-netters like the Gabriels didn’t get much time to fish, with just a few days of openers in June and July.

Gabriel said he’s not sure this year’s average sockeye forecast will be enough to get set-net fishermen to gear up, in the case that king numbers increase and the fishery can open. He said a large sockeye projection, on the other hand, might have convinced some that it’s worth taking a chance and getting their site ready to go — even just for a day or two on the water.

“It’s sort of a risk-reward … that you would have the opportunity to fish on numbers when the run’s here and maybe have one or two good days, which could potentially make a season,” he said.

He said he and his wife, Lisa, are likely going to gear up, though he said it probably “won’t be 100% like we usually do.”

Meanwhile, a committee in the Alaska Legislature is hearing a permit buyback bill this week that could give set-netters some relief.

The bill is the latest version of legislation that originated with former Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche and would give Cook Inlet east side set-netters a chance to sell back their set-net permits from the closed fishery to the state at a higher rate than what they’re currently worth. The program would buy permits for about $260,000, which is about 16 times their current value, according to data from the state.

Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman sponsored the bill this session. He said commercial fishing on the Kenai Peninsula is an industry on life support.

“What this does, is it takes set nets out of the water and closes those waters to commercial fishing, and by doing that, it allows for, hopefully, more fishing time — or some fishing time, period — for the set-net fleet that is left, as well as providing the added benefit of returning more fish to the river, because less nets will be fishing,” he said last week.

Previous versions of the bill have gotten wide support from set-netters, who say a buy-back would create a more sustainable fishery for remaining fishermen. The Senate Resouces committee will hear testimony on that bill this Friday at 3:30 p.m.

KDLL’s Riley Board contributed reporting. This story has been corrected to indicate Bjorkman's bill will be heard in Senate Resources Friday.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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