Fishermen cast to hook Board of Fish attention

Feb 10, 2020

A sockeye salmon is picked from a setnet on an east-side Cook Inlet beach.
Credit Redoubt Reporter

The Alaska Board of Fisheries heard two days of public comments over the weekend, weighing in on the 171 Upper Cook Inlet fisheries proposals it is considering this week and next in Anchorage.

As usual, it’s a tug-of-war over fish allocation, not only between commercial, sport and personal-use fisheries, but between regions, as well. The Matanuska-Susitna area is making a concerted effort to convince the board to regulate for more fish to get past mid-inlet commercial fisheries to upper-inlet streams.

Peter Matisse, of the Susitna Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, advocated for a conservation corridor, which would keep commercial drift-net fishing closer to shore, the thought being that this would allow passage of salmon heading to northern streams.

“Biologists are just beginning to understand that many of these fish travel through these corridors to great harvesting press and struggle to make it to the last destination, of the Su,” Matisse sai

A similar message was repeated for streams on the Kenai Peninsula. Jim Stubbs asked the board to address declining Kenai River king salmon runs by raising the escapement goals and managing for more kings getting to their spawning grounds. 

“To stop this death spiral for the Kenai kings, I think what we need to do is just put more fish in the river. A good starting point would 16,000 to 20,000 kings. And this is something the board can do,” Stubbs said.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association had a contingent of speakers, including executive director Ben Mohr, who argued for the economic value of sport fisheries versus commercial. 

“That value is maximized when the fish are passed on to the individual users. That’s were the greatest benefit is,” Mohr said. “The people in the state have been suffering because we haven’t been meeting that obligation. Instead, the state continues to restrict personal use, sport and guided sport in favor of commercial fisheries.” 

Commercial fishermen had a different take, particularly that they remove the surplus sockeyes returning to Cook Inlet, preventing over escapement, or too many fish getting upriver to spawn.

“I’m here today to just plead with you to consider yield. I believe you’re mandated to do that. Maximum sustained yield is a conservation tool. I would say the commercial fishing fleet is a conservation tool,” said Tim Doner, a commercial fisherman in Clam Gulch.

Tonya Doner said she’s frustrated by proposals seeking to restrict commercial fisheries, saying that other user groups don’t seem to want to share the burden of conservation.

“So it was, quote, ‘fair’ that everyone share the burden two cycles ago, is not fair anymore and we need more restrictions. I have to tell you sitting in front of you and test really is a helpless and deflating feeling. It just feels like we have to beg and plead to keep our jobs, and no matter what we give or what you take away, it is never enough,” Tonya Doner said.

Mark Wackler, a lower Kenai River guide, advocated for paired restrictions for in-river fishing and East-side set-net commercial fisheries when late-run Kenai River kings are struggling.

“I fully realize that if this proposal passes, I’m more likely to be restricted, and I’m OK with that. We’re past due to put the fish first,” Wackler said.

Wackler and Greg Brush, another lower Kenai River guide, both require releasing large, wild kings on their charters, and are in favor of size limits that protect kings over 36 inches. 

“Likewise, we can’t continue to kill 44-pound hens and 50-pound buck kings and then wonder, ‘Where’s our big fish?’” Brush said.

Put fish first was an often-repeated phrase over the weekend, although there were many different opinions on how, exactly, to do that. But even that seemingly palatable sentiment didn’t resonate with everyone. 

Ted Eischeid, a planner with the Mat-Su Borough, talked about the downturn of fishing in the borough from 2007 to 2017, in loss of fishing tourism, sportfishing jobs and tax revenues.

“I heard a lot of people say, put fish first. I would ask the board to put people first. These moneys from sportfishing drive our commerce our businesses, they make our communities vibrant and they’re really important to the people of the Mat-Su,” Eischeid said.

The board split into two groups Monday, one to consider proposals on the Kenai River late-run sockeye management plan. The other discussed the Susitna sockeye stock of concern, the Central District drift fishery management plan, commercial fishery times and areas, and upper inlet silver and pink salmon fisheries. The board deliberates on the conclusions of those groups Tuesday.

Live audio of board proceedings is available on Fish and Game’s website.