ADF&G’s commercial fishing division will launch an early June set net fishery south of the Kasilof, to pay for the July Cook Inlet sockeye test project.
Bids for a processor to run the commercial fishery for the department were due this week.
That set net fishery would be contracted out, to fish beginning June 15 south of the Kasilof, to generate up to $75,000 to fund the department’s Cook Inlet test fishing boat in July.
It’s called a cost recovery fishery and it is a means the department has used before on the Kasilof, 2002-2010, and uses often in Bristol Bay, to pay for projects considered vital when there are not general funds available.
“We need to generate money to support the offshore test fish project, which has run every year since 1978,” Soldotna area biologist Pat Shields said. “That lower Cook Inlet data is a critical piece of information for us to manage all of the fisheries.
“We lost a big chunk of funding due to budget cuts, and we either had to generate revenue to pay for that or let that project go. And we think it’s just too important.”
The test fish project fishes every day during the month of July, at six pre-set locations in lower Cook Inlet, starting at Homer and working west across the Inlet, to try to monitor both the size and the stage of the sockeye run as it progresses.
“By the middle of July, we can pretty accurately make a season assessment, of run strength and timing, “Shields said. “We use that to make decisions on (managing) the fishery. We make it public and even personal use and some sport fishing guys use it and publish it on the internet.”
“The department has put out a RFQ for area processors and fishermen, for how much they will pay per pound for sockeye (harvested in this fishery). The goal is to harvest $50-$75,000 in fish.”
The price per pound bid will determine how many sockeye are harvested, he said, perhaps 5-6,000 sockeye to meet that revenue goal.
“The earlier in June, the more valuable the sockeye are,” Shields said. “And the fewer we have to harvest (to meet the revenue goal). It’s a compromise.”
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, questions both the department using cost recovery fisheries and the potential impact on other salmon runs besides the Kasilof’s sockeyes.
“What they’re going to be fishing is Kasilof kings, Kenai kings and Kenai reds,” Gease said, pointing out that the earlier the set net fishery opens, the more likely Russian River reds are part of the catch. Those Russian River sockeye are the first to return to the Kenai, in early June.
Gease questioned the department using cost recovery fisheries, without going through the Board of Fisheries approval or process, under the guise of orders from the Legislature to generate more funds internally.
“Cost recovery means the commercial fishing division can go into the fish business, contract and sell fish to generate funds for specific projects,” he said.
What everyone agrees on is that the earlier a sockeye is caught and sold, the more valuable it is. That’s why Copper River sockeye and kings, as the first salmon on market each year, command the highest prices. A week ago, Copper River kings were fetching up to $75 a pound in Seattle. Sockeye sell for much less, but still garner the highest prices of the season.
“The higher the price, the fewer fish we will need,” Shields said, using a hypothetical $2 per pound for 5-pound sockeyes, so 6,000 fish would generate $60,000, if that was the goal.
“The fish are more valuable, so we need to harvest fewer. And since we’re fishing south of the Kasilof, in mid-June, we should be able to keep the harvest to mostly Kasilof river stocks. That river has exceeded its escapement goal eight of the last 10 years.”
The fishery will start June 15 and be five gillnets, south of the Kasilof River.
By comparison, there are almost 250 set net permit holders that will be able to fish beginning with the regular season opener, this year tentatively June 26.
“If we had our druthers, we would rather not have to do this,” Shields said. We’ve got two difficult decisions. Without the revenue, the offshore test fishing does not happen and we lose that valuable info. Or we generate the revenue that we have the authority to do and try to be the least disruptive to all users.”
Shields says any kings caught in the fishery will also generate revenue for the department, although he suggested there should not be many.
“If they catch kings, we will sample those (for genetic indication of which river they were destined for), but we expect that to be fairly small. Based on our previous experience, very few of these should be Kenai River kings.”
“It’s not a perfect scenario,” Shields said. “We realize that these fisheries are not popular, and we would rather not have to do these.”
The winning bidder should be notified and announced later this week.