Hard-hit setnet fishermen in Kenai are sitting on pins and needles Wednesday, as the state's fisheries board voted to wait and reassess daily whether to allow setnetters to put their equipment into the water.
As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, the board had not approved setnet fishing Thursday, a delay that has the setnetters on edge.
A poor king salmon run has drastically cut the income of more than 400 licensed setnetters in Kenai. If they don't get permission to catch other types of salmon before the season runs out, this summer will amount to a near-total loss. According to setnet fisherman Gary Hollier, his catch is off by 30 percent this year. He says he knows other setnetters" who are down 90 percent, and believes some may go out of business.
While the setnetters are devastated, Kenai City Manager Rick Koch says other aspects of the Kenai economy are intact. He says energy is a big component of the local economy, and projects growth of 3 to 5 percent this year -- in conjunction with a good driftnet season. Koch admits that the economic situation for setnetters is dire.
As Kenai setnetters continue to struggle, the Mat-Su Borough is chiming in on what has been something of a salmon crisis for sport fishermen there.
Bruce Knowles, the chairman of the borough's Fish and Game Commission, says that area sockeye and coho salmon runs in the Borough are low. It's news that comes on the heels of an early termination of the Susitna River's king salmon run, another economically painful blow to the region.
Knowles says the shortfalls are creating an economic crisis in the valley's sportfishing industry, as well as repercussions throughout the Mat-Su's economy affecting gas stations, restaurants bed-and-breakfasts and guide services.
And, somewhat controversially, Knowles says the Cook Inlet driftnet fishery is at least partially to blame for the dearth of coho and sockeye -- an assessment vehemently contested by Dr. Roland Maw, head of the United Cook Inlet Driftnet Association.
Knowles says the driftnet fishermen, who start their sockeye season in the third week of July, are harvesting a large proportion of sockeyes headed for spawning grounds in the Mat-Su Valley. He would like the driftnet season's opening delayed by a few days in order to give the first burst of sockeye a chance to reach rivers like the Susitna.
But the driftnetters claim there's no evidence to back Knowles' claim. They say the reason for poor sockeye runs on the Susitna has to do with pike infestations of some lakes in the Mat-Su.
Knowles counters that the driftnetters' claim is unfounded. He says pike and sockeye coexist in other parts of Alaska, and there's no reason to believe that pike are eating a disproportionate number of salmon fry in the Mat-Su's waterways.
Both Knowles and Maw agree, however, that deep-sea factory trawlers prowling the Pacific Ocean more than 200 miles off Alaska's coast are hurting the state's king salmon runs. They claim that the bycatch of these trawlers, including the accidental entrapment of illegally caught kings, is a big part of this year's statewide crash in king populations.
The two also agree that too many kings are being caught by Alaska fishermen off the coast of Kodiak. They want genetic studies of those catches to see if the returning kings caught by charter and trawler fishermen there have DNA markers that indicate they're trying to return to rivers like the Kenai and the Susitna.
But Knowles and Maw are not likely to get an answer concerning the Kodiak harvest any time soon. While they've been asking for studies of captured Kodiak kings for years, they haven't been able to get the funding needed for those studies from the state.
They both also acknowledge that a natural phenomenon, the Pacific decadal oscillation -- an upwelling of cold-water nutrients just off the coast of Alaska -- may be contributing to the low king runs this year.
For the past several decades, the oscillation has occurred in June off the coast of Alaska -- providing nutrients that feed the prey of the king salmon. This year it was late, occuring in July, apparently denying the kings' prey their nutrients and in turn denying the denying the kings a chance to feed.
It's possible that some kings succumbed during their arduous journey back to their spawning streams because they simply could not consume the calories they needed to spawn.
In the meantime, more than 400 weary setnetters in the Kenai are anxiously watching as the clock runs down on their season this year. Many are wondering how they're going to make ends meet for their families.
The decimated king salmon runs have caused hardship throughout much of the state this season -- and no one has any idea how many years it may take for the runs to improve.
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