By Lee Leschper
There’s growing sentiment that this is the year that ADF&G’s commercial-focused management of Cook Inlet salmon stocks has gone too far, and is energizing Alaska sport fishermen to fight back.
First an aggressive netting schedule effectively corked off the Kenai River from returning sockeye salmon, and only when fear of meeting minimum escape goals forced a week of netting closures did sport and personal use fishermen get any meaningful run of fish.
The Kenai late run sockeye fishery is fading past and may effectively be over for 2017, and whether those Kenai sockeye will now meet the minimum escapement goal is in doubt.
This week, as very large schools of silver salmon have been moving up the Inlet toward MatSu valley rivers as well as the popular Anchorage Ship Creek fishery, ADF&G has given the drift fleet unlimited fishing. And the drifters have been very successful intercepting those fish before they can reach Anchorage and Valley sport fishermen, taking more than 48,000 silvers in a single day this week.
As a possible sign of before-and-after netting on the silvers, the Anchorage Ship Creek silver run had been incredible, before the drift fleet interceded. Time will tell if that will continue as those same nets also ended the Ship Creek run early.
Fish counts for each of these runs reflecting the impact of open and closed netting sessions is online at the department’s sport fishing website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/sf/FishCounts/index.cfm?ADFG=main.displayResults&COUNTLOCATIONID=13&SpeciesID=421
To be clear, Cook Inlet is and has been managed as a commercial salmon fishery. If enough fish are left for other users, whether visiting anglers who support the tourism industry or local families trying to fill their freezer, that’s a side benefit only. And also to be clear, ADF&G is taking an aggressive tact, following the guidance of the Alaska Board of Fish, which provided far more liberal commercial fishing frameworks this spring, with a goal of providing more fish for the commercial fishermen.
The commercial industry has always been very effective at defending this approach. In the past, sport fishermen grumbled and then went moose hunting and forgot about fishing for another year. What’s different?
Fight4Fish is a new grass roots effort to call sport fishermen out, to tell state wildlife staffers and elected fishermen how unhappy they are with this year’s management of the Cook Inlet salmon runs.
The website and form to submit comments is: http://fight4fish.com/
The Facebook online magazine Alaska Outdoor Journal has been particularly blunt about the commercial-first tact that ADF&G has taken, here in a post July 31:
“SILVER SLAUGHTER ON THE HIGH SEAS!
“If this season’s commercial fishing management actions haven’t already been off the chart, you have all just taken another hit from ADFG when they released the Drift Fleet on Monday to fish any open area of the entire Cook Inlet. And as I told you before that period occurred, IF they were allowed to fish Inlet-wide the drifters were going to target that huge school of silvers and chums moving up the central Inlet towards all the Valley fisheries. And so it was.
“The total commercial harvest on Monday for beach sites and Drift Fleet was 48,483 COHO of which the Drift boats fishing the middle of the Inlet landed 39,279 of those fish. The east side set nets which would be targeting Kenai Peninsula silvers only landed 1,348 silvers showing that the KP runs have not really started yet. So ALL those silvers were headed for Upper Cook Inlet, Knik, and the Valley fisheries.
“How does that feel? In addition another 80,000 sockeye, 23,500 chums and 12,300 pinks were removed from the Inlet.”
Hope is a lousy management strategy but it’s the best that anglers can hope for this year. Several salmon fisheries like the Copper River have surprised fishermen and the department forecasters with larger than expected runs, offsetting both incorrect forecasts and aggressive commercial takes in the early days. Time will tell if more sockeye for the Kenai and silvers for the rest of the state evade enough nets to salvage those runs.
What also remains to be seen is if this year’s trend prompts a few weeks of grumbling from sport fishermen or if this is just the latest in a serious of lousy seasons for everybody except the commercial industry.
Lee Leschper is publisher of Alaska Outdoor Digest and a lifelong sport fisherman and outdoor writer.