Commercial setnet fishermen in Cook Inlet had their season cut short last week. When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the Kenai River to sportfishing for king salmon, it closed the east setnet fishery completely. Some of them had only had a handful of openers.
There are still plenty of sockeye in the water, which are the main fish the commercial fleet harvests, and setnetters are making some last-ditch plays to try to save some of their season. Ted Crookston, who has been setnetting on the Salamatof beach for nearly six decades, is asking the Board of Fisheries to at least open the setnets in a narrow strip just offshore—out to 600 feet below mean high tide. That would allow them to harvest some of the sockeye that the drift fleet can’t, and Crookston says the data shows it would not harvest many kings.
"If it qualifies as an emergency, they would have the authority to call a special meeting," he said. "And the purpose of the special meeting would be to address the petitioner’s request and adopt a temporary regulation to mitigate the problem. In this case, we’re asking that the east side setnet fishery be reopened to just the 600-foot mean high tide mark."
The shutdown is devastating for setnetters, he says. While they are on the beach, all the other fishery sectors are still in the water harvesting sockeye, and there are plenty of sockeye still headed for the Kenai River this season. He says the 600-foot fishery has been used before and could still be implemented effectively, if the Board of Fisheries can hold an emergency meeting to authorize the move.
He said he and other setnetters met with them and Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials on Sunday to discuss it and are sending more information to ask the board members to take it up as an emergency meeting.
There are more than 400 setnet permits in the east side setnet fishery, and like other commercial fishermen, most of what they harvest is sockeye salmon. However, they have also historically harvested more king salmon than the drift fleet, and the Board of Fisheries regulates them under what is called “paired restrictions” when the sportfishery for king salmon is restricted. When the sportfishery was restricted to no bait or catch-and-release only, they lost gear, but when the sportfishery was closed, they came out of the water entirely.
King salmon numbers in the Kenai River are struggling. As of Sunday, only about 4,600 large kings had passed the sonar, less than a third of Fish and Game’s escapement goal. Biologists project that even without any more harvest, the run won’t make the lower end of the escapement goal, which is set at 15,000. In their season this year, east side setnetters have harvested 187 large late-run Kenai kings, according to Fish and Game.
Crookston said the east side setnetters aren’t harvesting enough kings to make a serious impact on the run, and should be allowed to at least operate in this 600-foot zone. In reality, it’s only about 250 feet of water, he said, because it’s 600 feet from the mean high tide mark, and that in six decades of fishing, he’s learned that very few kings would swim in that area.
"We’re sitting here on the beach and catastrophically denied access to anything and you’re saying that it’s justified—it’s not," he said. "The other thing is that this nearshore fishery, in times of low king abundanace ... is the most logical and real measure for reducing the king harvest to as close to zero as possible, and it’s pretty dang close to zero."
The drift fleet was open on Monday and is scheduled to open Tuesday for 12 hours, but the setnet fishery will remain closed.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.