The Rape of Cook Inlet Salmon Fisheries

The Rape of Cook Inlet Salmon Fisheries

The Board of Fish (BOF) had their meeting on regulating the Cook Inlet fishery over 10 days starting the last week in February.  The meeting was an utter disaster for the quarter million sport fish license holders, the 26,000 personal use, dip net people, and a resounding victory for the 1,100 commercial fishing permit holders in the inlet.  The BOF, led by three Bill Walker appointees undid two decades of management measures intended to maximize availability to the commonly shared resource for all users.  This is a classic example of regulatory capture of a resource and the government entities by the very group that the regulations are aimed at controlling.

The BOF listened to complaints of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and decided that they had, in the words of Board Chairman Jensen suffered enough.  Jensen is a commercial fishermen from Petersburg.  They also listened to a variety of complaints by sport fishermen, dip netters and subsistence users and decided that the interests of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen were more important a quarter million of their neighbors and visitors.

The short description is that Cook Inlet is managed so as to maximize the second run of Kenai reds caught by 1,100 commercial fishermen.  It is nicely ensconced in 5 AAC 21.360 (a) which states:

“The department shall manage the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stocks primarily for commercial uses based on abundance.”

This is in direct conflict with the state constitution which also states:

“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the state, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of the people….”

Apparently today, “maximum benefit of the people” means maximum benefit of commercial fishermen, which is how the Walker BOF is managing the resource.

This makes me wonder what is really going on here, as Alaskans tend to drop all manner of lawsuits against infrastructure, mines, oil exploration, logging, normally with some variation of the theme that whatever it is needs to be instantly and permanently shut down to save the salmon.  Yet every single one of those people and groups are completely silent as Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, aided and abetted by the Walker BOF, decimate salmon returns throughout the region.

Further, we have an endangered species here in Cook Inlet – the belugas – which NMFS created by foolishly allowing native whaling crews to cut numbers by 75% over a two year period some 20 years ago.  The number of whales haven’t been increasing.  Why would that be?  Could it be that the silvers, coho and pinks they normally feed on in August and September have been swept up in commercial nets on their way north and are never available for them to eat?

How would you go about proving that?  One way would be to take a look at late run fish in various upper Cook Inlet streams and see what has happened to the runs over the last couple decades.  I built the following spreadsheet based on data from the ADF&G Sportfish fish count database.

Year Deshka King Deshka Coho Fish Creek Reds Little Su Coho Russian River Second Run Reds Russian River Coho Kenai River Second Run Reds
2016 22,774 6,816 46,202 9,998 37,827 503 1,383,692
2015 24,316 10,775 102,309 12,421 46,223 385 1,709,053
2014 16,335 11,578 43,915 24,211 52,277 2,990 1,524,706
2013 18,531 22,141 18,912 13,583 31,573 1,758 1,358,781
2012 14,096 6,825 18,813 6,770 54,911 423 1,581,555
2011 19,026 7,508 66,678 4,826 41,529 157 1,599,217
2010 18,594 10,390 126,836 9,182 38,848 642 1,294,885
2009 11,960 27,348 83,480 9,523 80,088 353 1,090,057
2008 7,533 12,724 19,339 18,485 46,638 1,959 917,138
2007 18,714 10,575 27,948 17,573 53,068 1,188 1,229,944
2006 31,150 59,419 32,562 8,786 89,160 1,038 2,064,726
2005 37,725 47,887 14,215 16,839 59,473 686 1,908,823
2004 57,934 62,940 22,157 40,199 110,244 470 1,945,383
2003 40,069 17,305 91,952 10,877 157,469 545 1,656,026
2002 29,427 24,612 90,483 47,938 62,115 3,260 1,339,681
2001 29,004 29,915 43,486 30,383 74,828 9,888 906,333
2000 35,242 26,297 19,533 15,436 56,580 4,819 900,695
1999 29,649 4,563 26,746 3,017 139,863 2,964 1,137,003
1998 15,409 6,773 22,865 15,159 112,480 4,017 1,084,993
1997 35,587 8,063 55,035 9,894 65,905 4,105 1,512,731
Escapement 13,000 – 28,000 No goal 20,000 – 70,000 10,100 – 17,700 30,000 – 110,000 No goal 1,100,000 – 1,350,000

Take a look at the portions highlighted in yellow – late run coho in the Deshka, Little Su and both late runs in the Russian.  See anything interesting?  Deska coho between 2010 – 2016 never get much above 22,000 fish.  Before that, there were seven years above that number with two in the vicinity of 60,000 silvers.  In the Little Su, we see the same thing, with a single peak of 24,000 fish during the period, while three runs well over 40,000 before that.  How about the Russian?  It is even more pronounced with the Russian.  Red returns are only once above 50,000 fish during the period while there are at least four instances over 110,000 fish before the recent period and 12 years above 50,000 reds in the river before that period.  Final piece is the very late run coho in the Russian.  There are only two years over 1,000 fish, though one is nearly 3,000.  During the period before that, there are nine years above 1,000 coho with one of them nearly 10,000.

Lack of coho is an important indicator, for they are late run fish.  And if the fish aren’t hitting the rivers that late in the season, they are no longer in the Inlet.  So where are they going?  ADF&G Commercial Fish gives a hint.  The following spreadsheet was generated from one of their yearly summaries of catch.

Year Chinook Sockeye Coho Pink Chum Total non-sockeye Total Catch Percent of non-sockeye
2016 9,613 2,382,635 137,424 379,077 126,529 652,643 3,035,278 21.50%
2015 10,798 2,649,667 216,032 48,004 275,960 550,794 3,200,461 17.21%
2014 4,660 2,343,529 137,376 642,879 116,093 901,008 3,244,537 27.77%
2013 5,398 2,683,224 260,963 48,275 139,365 454,001 3,137,225 14.47%
2012 2,527 3,133,839 106,775 469,598 269,733 848,633 3,982,472 21.31%
2011 11,248 5,277,440 95,276 34,030 129,202 269,756 5,547,196 4.86%
2010 9,901 2,828,367 202,256 292,672 228,670 733,499 3,561,866 20.59%
2009 8,750 2,045,794 153,210 214,321 82,811 459,092 2,504,886 18.33%
2008 13,333 2,380,135 171,869 169,368 50,315 404,885 2,785,020 14.54%
2007 18,029 2,192,730 177,853 404,111 64,033 664,026 2,856,756 23.24%
2006 18,029 2,192,730 177,853 404,111 64,033 664,026 2,856,756 23.24%
2005 28,171 5,238,168 224,657 48,419 69,740 370,987 5,609,155 6.61%
2004 26,922 4,926,774 311,056 357,939 146,164 842,081 5,768,855 14.60%
2003 18,490 3,476,159 101,756 48,789 120,767 289,802 3,765,961 7.70%
2002 12,714 2,773,118 246,281 446,960 237,949 943,904 3,717,022 25.39%
2001 9,295 1,826,833 113,311 72,559 84,494 279,659 2,106,492 13.28%
2000 7,350 1,322,482 236,871 146,482 127,069 517,772 1,840,254 28.14%
1999 14,383 2,680,510 125,908 16,174 174,541 331,006 3,011,516 10.99%
1998 8,124 1,219,242 160,660 551,260 95,654 815,698 2,034,940 40.08%
1997 13,292 4,176,738 152,404 70,933 103,036 339,665 4,516,403 7.52%

 

Every vessel that catches anything has to report it.  While the commercial fleet is targeting second run reds, it is most certainly catching a LOT of other fish.  The total non-sockeye caught is in the vicinity of 20% of the total catch most years.

Where have the coho gone?  Into commercial nets.  This is why silver fishing around Cook Inlet has been so terrible over the last decade or so.  It is why we no longer see beluga haunting Turnagain and Knik Arm silver fisheries in August and September.

Final piece of the puzzle is the personal use fishery, the dip netters.  This is a fast growing fishery that had its best two years in 2011 – 2012.  It is also despised by the commercial fleet, for every single second run red caught by a dip netter is a red that the commercial fishermen believe belong to them.  And the BOF and ADF&G Kenai commfish managers have managed to cut the total catch nearly in half over the last four years via an endless series of back to back to back to back emergency openings.  Once again, the data is from ADF&G Commfish.

YEAR Fish Creek Dip Net Kasilof River Gillnet Kasilof River Dip Net Kenai River Dip Net
2016 0 26,539 58,273 259,057
2015 19,260 27,567 89,000 377,532
2014 5,829 22,567 88,513 379,823
2013 0 14,439 85,528 347,222
2012 0 15,638 73,419 526,992
2011 5,236 26,780 49,766 537,765
2010 23,705 21,924 70,774 389,552
2009 9,898 26,646 73,035 339,993
2008 0 23,432 54,051 234,109
2007 0 14,943 43,293 291,270
2006 0 28,867 56,144 127,630
2005 0 26,609 43,151 295,496
2004 0 25,417 48,315 262,831
2003 0 15,706 43,870 223,580
2002 0 17,980 46,769 180,028
2001 436 17,201 37,612 150,766
2000 6,925 14,774 23,877 98,262
1999 1,083 12,832 37,176 149,504
1998 4,036 15,975 45,161 103,847
1997 3,277 17,997 9,737 114,619
1996 17,260 9,506 11,197 102,821

 

The 1,100 commercial permit holders in Cook Inlet are nicely politically connected.  They believe they have a God-given right to be first at the table to catch with impunity what is a commonly owned resource.  They can be opposed politically, but this legislature does not seem to want to join that fight, despite clucking noises made last summer by Bill Wielechowski and Les Gara who are nowhere to be found following the recently completed BOF meeting.  Perhaps they are busy.  Perhaps they are putting on a good show.

The problem Cook Inlet commercial fishermen are responding to is an economic one of their own making.  Normally when one makes poor economic decisions, they are ground into dust.  In the 1970s, the State of Alaska led by commercial fishermen passed a ban on aquaculture for finfish (salmon, halibut and Pollock).  This was at its most basic level a protectionist measure intended to protect them from fish farming competition.

The problem is that 40 years later, the rest of the world (Chile, Scandinavia, Canada) has figured out how reliably grow and sell a commercially farmed salmon product.  They learned how to deat with parasites, diseases and pollution (all things that other ranchers have to deal with) well enough to now sell over 70% of all the salmon in the world today.  Per fish prices aren’t coming up any time soon, if ever.

So if you are a business owner who cannot get the per fish price up, how do you increase what you make?  Simple.  You catch more fish, which is precisely what the BOF has decided they need to do.

Why commercial fishing business owners are more important than guides, dip netters, fly shop owners, sport fish equipment retailers, those who cater to tourist fishing, or any of the other quarter million people who live and work to fish in south central Alaska is beyond me, but that is where we stand today.

Solution?  First would be to increase escapement in the Kenai for second run reds to a minimum of 2.5 million fish.  Second would be to convert the drift fleet from an inlet-wide operation to a terminal fishery, with openings timed so as to allow large slugs of fish to be available for other user groups.  Finally, commercial catch of all other species of salmon should be discouraged and perhaps even punished at every level of management.

Somewhere along the line we as a state will have to repeal the ban on fish farming before the commercial fleet is completely crushed in the worldwide marketplace and in response completely crushes the rest of us in their death throes as they vacuum every single salmon out of Cook Inlet in a desperate attempt to remain in business.

What happened in Anchorage over the last couple weeks with the Board of Fish was a travesty, a disaster for everyone who wets a line.  Its damage will take years to repair.  Thank you, Bill Walker whose appointees did just what he wanted them to do.

Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He is a small business owner and Information Technology professional.

 

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