by Rhonda McBride
Channel 2 News
5:49 AM AKDT, August 7, 2012
After weeks of being shut out of their fishery, East Side Cook Inlet Setnetters put their nets in the water on Monday, their first opportunity to fish since July 16.
Ever since king salmon have returned to the Kenai River in some of the lowest numbers on record, it’s been a season of sacrifice for both the setnetters and the Kenai Peninsula sport fishing industry -- a season marked by trade-offs between the more abundant sockeyes and the struggling king run, and all the different people who depend on these fish.
State fishery managers allowed Monday’s 12-hour opener after sonar counts of king salmon entering the Kenai River showed steady and marked improvement.
“We haven’t seen this kind of strength this late,” said Jeff Regnart, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial division. “So it might in the end, turn out to be a late run with a strong tail.”
As of of last Friday, August 3, Fish and Game was about 2,300 fish short of meeting its escapement goal of 17,800 kings, or chinooks. Even so, the department decided to allow setnetters an opportunity to fish for the remaining sockeyes and pink salmon that are now beginning to return, acknowledging that some kings would be caught.
But with the recent influx of kings, Regnart says fishery managers are confident the department’s escapement objectives will be met, while at the same time easing some of the economic hardship for the setnetters.
As of 1:00 p.m. on Monday, halfway into the 12-hour opener, Brent Johnson said he would probably make a couple of thousand dollars at his setnet site on the beach in Ninilchik.
“We can divvy that up for the crew that’s still here,” said Johnson. “So my share would be about a thousand dollars. During the winter, I have a hard time scraping together a thousand dollars.”
Johnson said he caught 600 pinks and about 100 sockeyes.
“So far with 33 nets, we caught one king, so that looks like a pretty good tradeoff to me.”
But to Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the tradeoff is unacceptable.
“It’s hard to make all these savings throughout the year and kind of have them wash away,” said Gease, whose organization supported some of the drastic conservation measures early in the season that eventually closed the river to all king salmon fishing, even to catch and release. Gease says bait restrictions on anglers for coho or silver salmon continue to prevent them from hooking the late run kings.
“Why did every king count until July 31st, and now that we’re in August, without meeting the minimum escapement goal, the same rationale for saving kings is not being followed through?” asks Gease, who says KRSA has also sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell demanding answers.
Last week KRSA petitioned the Board of Fisheries to keep East Side setnetters from fishing in August, without success.
So will there be another opener for the East Side setnetters?
Regnart says that depends on Monday’s catch, sonar counts and other indices the department uses to track run strength.
“It’s a changing landscape,” said Regnart. “And so that’s why we hesitate to tell you what position or decision we might do in three days from now, or two days from now, because it can change dramatically.”
For state fishery managers, it’s been a difficult balancing act. Too few kings and the sport fishing industry will point the finger at them for failing to protect the kings. If escapement goals are exceeded by too many fish, setnetters will blame them for failing to protect the people.
As of Aug. 3, the king salmon sonar station on the Kenai river counted 15,485 kings. That compares to 19,281 kings counted by the same date last year and 17,248 in 2010.
No matter which side of the user debate you’re on, the numbers so far show that meeting the department’s escapement goals will require a finely-tuned decision making process, one that is sure to be challenged long after the season is over.
Email Rhonda McBride
Copyright © 2013, KTUU-TV