In a six to one vote, the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved some major changes to the way setnetters fish in the Kenai.

It’s a goal of boosting the King population while giving setnetters a chance to go after an abundance of sockeye salmon in the Cook Inlet.

On Wednesday, the board adopted new regulations for setnet fishing in an attempt to help with Kenai River King salmon conservation.

Commercial setnetters would have to apply gear restrictions and shallow fishing methods as needed.

“It’s gratifying to see the public process come together, putting meaningful restrictions in place for all user groups,” said Ricky Gease, Executive Director of Kenai River Sport Fishing Association.

Gease said the new restrictions are a step in the right direction and will hopefully make up for the losses of kings during periods of low returns.

Setnetters will now have the choice of reducing the number of nets in the water or switching to a smaller mesh that doesn’t drop as deep as a bigger mesh does.

The change comes off new data showing kings near the Kenai River swim at an average depth of 10 feet below the sockeye targeted by setnetters in the inlet.

“A few fishermen took it on themselves to shallow their nets and keep records,” said Kevin Delaney, a Kenai River Sport Fishing Association Consultant. “Their records indicate that this has significant promise,” said Delaney.

It’s on an experimental basis to see if setnet fishing catches fewer kings. What the new regulations hope to find is what the impact of fishing will have using shallower nets and if kings can really pass through them.

Jim Butler, a set net fisherman on the Kenai said the decision is a lost opportunity and it’s something he’s still trying to understand.

“There’s been no scientific method applied to making a determination on whether it makes a difference or not,” said Butler. “There have been studies in the past that have said you can’t measure it.”

The hunt for trophy kings on the Kenai has built a lot of the areas businesses, but the declining number of kings on the Kenai River in the past 10 years has driven the economic value down.

“When you stop and think that there is probably anywhere from $600 to $800 million on direct expenditures on sport fisheries in South Central, Alaska and 60 percent of sport fishing takes place in Cook Inlet, 60 percent of that is right out of the Kenai River,” said Delaney.

“I like to think that there is a lot more to coming to Alaska than coming to one fishery and catching one type of fish,” said Butler.

It’s a decision that will hopefully boost the number of runs but a decision that holds an unknown future for kings on the Kenai.
The board’s decision Wednesday will be effective once the new regulations are finalized.