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Board of Fisheries approves king salmon action plan

A buoy at a set-net site in Ninilchik in June.
Sabine Poux
A buoy at a set-net site in Ninilchik in June.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries concluded its Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting Tuesday, after hearing days of public testimony and voting on hundreds of proposals. Among the most significant was a tight vote in a plan for late-run king salmon management, which will lower the goal for escapement, possibly creating opportunities for the East Side Set Net sockeye salmon fishery.

Anchorage Member Märit Carlson-Van Dort kicked off Friday’s meeting by proposing a recovery plan that would keep the escapement goal for large king salmon at 15,000-30,000. Large king salmon are those over 34 inches.

Carlson-Van Dort told the board the motivation for her plan was to recover king salmon to sustainable levels.

“Sustained yield, means to me, that we will continue to provide the stewardship needed to keep replenishable resources available at the highest possible level, and that is rooted in Alaska’s Constitution, Article 8,” Carlson-Van Dort said.

She said department presentations and public comments indicated a low escapement goal is not enough to help the species recover. And she said her plan distributes limitations across every user group.

“It provides restrictions to the in-river sport fishermen, the set gillnet fishermen, the drift gillnet fishermen and personal-use fishermen, personal-use Alaskans, until that recovery goal is achieved,” she said.

Regulators manage sockeye fishing with kings in mind, because the latter, a species of concern, can be accidentally killed as bycatch. The East Side Set Net fishery was closed before the season even began last year because of a low king forecast. Carlson-Van Dort’s plan would have a set-net opening if the pre-season forecast for large kings were over 15,000, but not require one.

“In my language, it allows the department some latitude,” she explained. “It is not a shall, it is a may.”

The plan also allowed for emergency orders on sport fishing, like limiting bait and increasing the sockeye bag limit. Retaining king salmon on the Kenai River would remain prohibited. That would also be true for personal-use dipnet fisheries.

Over the course of deliberations, the board worked from Carlson-Van Dort’s action plan but made a major amendment to the king escapement threshold. Eagle River Board Member Gerad Godfrey first proposed lowering the goal from 15,000 to 13,500, which failed, then proposed lowering that number to 14,250, which passed in a 4-3 vote.

He said the goal was to more equally distribute the burden of conservation.

“The restrictions on, in particular, the set-netters that fish in this fishery, it is existential,” Godfrey said. “To the point where if and when the goals here historically and what the status quo has been achieved, whether it takes two years or five years from now, and they’re not able to fish due to the non-targeted capture of kings, many of those operations will cease to exist, and that to me is not an egalitarian approach to distributing the pain equally.”

Carlson-Van Dort was one of the votes against.

You can find the full approved action plan here.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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