The Board of Fisheries has denied two emergency petitions from Kenai Peninsula setnetters asking to reopen a limited fishery for what is left of the sockeye run.
The east side setnet commercial fishery has been closed since July 20 after the Alaska Department of Fish and game closed the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery. The setnets are tied to the restrictions in the sportfishery, and came out of the water entirely when the sportfishery closed. The late run of king salmon has been depressed this year—only 6,420 large kings have passed the sonar on the Kenai, and Fish and Game is projecting that the run won’t make the lower end of the escapement goal, even without harvest.
Late July and early August is usually the peak of the sockeye run, though, and setnetters are missing it. Fish and Game is currently projecting 1.5 million sockeye to enter the river by the end of the run.
Two setnetters, Chris Every and Paul Shadura II, submitted similar petitions to the board, asking that the department reopen the setnet fishery just out to 600 feet below mean high tide. They argue that the evidence shows that the 600-foot fishery harvests very few king salmon and allows them to harvest the nearshore sockeye, controlling escapement and providing fishing time without seriously risking kings.
Qualifying as an emergency to the board, though, is a high bar, and Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang ruled that the situation isn’t an emergency because the board could have seen it coming. In order to be an emergency, a situation has to threaten a salmon stock, be an unforeseen consequence, or provide new information.
"Plainly stated, the board foresaw the management actions taken to meet the Kenai River late run king salmon OEG may result in foregone harvest of the more abundant sockeye salmon stocks," he said. "Upon review of the records, the closure of the east side setnet fishery in the Kenai and Kasilof sections is not an unforeseen, unexpected resource situation."
In a meeting Monday, the board agreed 4-2 with Vincent-Lang and denied both petitions as emergencies. Board member John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg, said it was a hard decision, but the board has to stand by the regulations it made in 2020.
"I heard from the people, and before the commissioner made his reply, I thought, ‘We’d better hear this out. This is some serious business—there’s a lot of fish going by,’" he said. "But speaking just to the petition, I believe the commissioner’s take on the petition is the right and legal way to go."
Member Gerad Godfrey disagreed, saying he didn’t think he was fully aware of how small the king harvest is in the east side setnet fishery when it is limited to 600 feet. When Fish and Game opened one period of the 600-foot fishery that included the entire east side for 12 hours, 11 late run large Kenai River king salmon were harvested. Godfrey voted in favor of finding the petition as an emergency, citing what the closure is doing to the commercial fishermen.
"From my perspective, what it’s doing to this fishery, it is an emergency," he said. "If there was a more substantive amount of kings being caught as bycatch, that would be different, from my perspective, but essentially, we’re on the precipice of eradicating a fishery here entirely--a fishery that parts of it, as I recall, half of the time their nets aren’t fishing because they’re dry."
Vincent-Lang said that data from the 600-foot fishery may not be entirely accurate, as there has only been one opener that included the whole east side.
"That 11 (king salmon) harvest is indicative of that day of fishing, but it may not be indicative of what you can expect in the harvest in the 600-foot fishery that is prosecuted in the area depending upon when king salmon are passing and how big of a run you have going by that site," he said.
With the board’s denial, the setnetters are likely to remain closed for the rest of the season without a significant uptick in large king salmon passage in the Kenai River. Fishermen can take their concerns to the worksession for the board by submitting an agenda change request, asking to be on the next upcoming board meeting; otherwise, they have to wait until their own full board meeting, which is years away.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.