Drift fleet sidelined for Mat-Su-bound salmon

Feb 12, 2020

In Cook Inlet salmon runs, increasing fish for one purpose means taking them away from another. On Tuesday, the Alaska Board of Fisheries passed a proposal intended to get more salmon into upper Cook Inlet streams, by restricting the commercial Central District drift fishery. 

The “conservation corridor” will be expanded, pushing the central drift fleet closer to shore to let more north-bound silver and sockeye salmon get to rivers in the Susitna drainage. 

“The highest user is the drift fleet, so, you know, we need to make up a little bit there and, unfortunately, I feel the highest user needs to come up with the change, I guess,” said Board member Fritz Johnson, from Dillingham.

Proposal 133 came from the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission. That borough is stepping up advocacy for more fish allocation to Mat-Su streams, citing an economic analysis that sportfishing revenue has declined $150 million from 2007 to 2017. Board member John Wood, of Willow, championed that cause.

“I sit here and listen day after day after day about overescapement here and overescapement there. Please, someone show me in the entire Susitna basin where we have an overescapement issue. We don’t,” Wood said. “We’re just the opposite. If you want your most effective tool to minimize the northern-bound fish, this is it. If you want to help the Susitna rehabilitate those streams, this is the tool to do so." 

Board member Gerad Godfrey, of Eagle River, cited consistency. The board reduced commercial fishing opportunity at its meeting in Kodiak in January to get more salmon into Cook Inlet. Expanding the conservation corridor further passes fish on up through the mid-inlet.

“In the spirit of trying to be consistent with what happened in Kodiak, it would seem, if down here, you’re catching Cook Inlet-bound salmon of various stocks heading north, that when you get into Cook Inlet you also would provide restrictions for the most northern-bound salmon,” Godfrey said.

Board member Israel Payton, of Wasilla, acknowledged public testimony that the change will be difficult for commercial fishermen.

“I would certainly like to acknowledge that, yes, we are allocating away from a certain fleet, commercial users drift fleet. I’m fully aware of that. That doesn’t bring me any joy,” Payton said.

Ultimately, though, Payton said that getting more fish to their spawning beds will generate more fish for everyone.

“Smolt going out, they’ll grow up, they’ll be caught in Kodiak, it’ll increase their yield,” he said. “It’ll be caught in the Central District drift fleet, it’ll increase their yield. It’ll be caught in the Northern District set-net. It’ll increase everyone’s yield. And I know it’s easy to think short term on restrictions and how frustrating that is but I truly believe putting more fish up there will increase everyone’s yield in the future.” 

Board member John Jensen, of Petersburg, voted against the proposal. The rest of the board voted to approve.

The board discussed Upper Cook Inlet subsistence, personal-use and allocation criteria and the Kenai River late-run king salmon plan today. They’ll vote on those proposals Thursday. The Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting is expected to run until next Wednesday. Fish and Game streams live audio on its website, adfg.alaska.gov, under the regulations tab.