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Board of Fish approves Cook Inlet drift gillnet restrictions aimed to improve MatSu runs

 Aerial view of the Matanuska-Susitna Basin from MSB Public Affairs.
Aerial view of the Matanuska-Susitna Basin from MSB Public Affairs. (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 11, 2020 at 6:54 PM AKST
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Tuesday Alaska Board of Fish voted on a proposal adding mandatory area restrictions to the Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery in an effort to allow salmon bound for the northernmost part of Cook Inlet a better chance to reach those streams.

Proposal 133 was one of a handful of proposals submitted by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish & Wildlife Commission. Commissioners deliberated on the proposal for around half an hour before voting 6-1 in favor of the restrictions.

“I would certainly like to acknowledge that yes, we are allocating away from a certain fleet of commercial users - drift fleet. Fully aware of that. That doesn’t bring me joy,” board member Israel Payton said.

The proposal focuses on strengthening the conservation corridor, an area of restricted fishing that pushes the drift fleet closer to shore near the mouth of rivers in the Central District of Cook Inlet.

The board’s decision follows a decision at it’s Kodiak finfish meeting in January that reduced commercial fishing opportunity in an effort to allow more salmon to reach Cook Inlet. Board member Gerad Godfrey said that the board needed to adopt the resolution to continue that effort.

“With what the board did in Kodiak to that end, it would be inconsistent with what the board did not to, in my opinion,” Godfrey said.

The board passing the proposal is a significant milestone for advocates in the MatSu valley, who cite poor returns and limited inriver fishing opportunity as one reason for declined revenue from sportfishing has dropped $150 million dollars since 2007.

“It has a combination of benefits. We’ve had a difficult time achieving escapements. That means fisheries have been closed, and this will help substantially to improve both of those issues,” Larry Engel, a retired ADF&G biologists and former chair of the board of fish who now volunteers with the MatSu Fish & Wildlife Commission. “These fish have to travel all the full length of the Cook Inlet. It’s a 125 mile body of water that has commercial fisheries throughout the length, and this has reduced fishing opportunity for the commercial fishing fleet, and therefore those fish will be available to both spawn and hopefully for sport anglers to catch a few of them.”

For drift fishermen, the proposal will restrict fishing in areas that have been important to their livelihoods for multiple generations.

“As a younger fisherman in Cook Inlet, it’s my hope to work toward finding a balance with all of our fishing neighbors. But I really wish we could have been able to reach a compromise here,” Georgie Heaverly, a second generation Cook Inlet drift fisherman told Channel 2 via email. “Being removed from our historical fishing grounds, after years of restrictions, is not only a blow to our coastal economy and our food system, but is culturally damaging to our fishing communities. I hope that our fishermen keep working on building bridges between regions, between user groups, and come back to the board with proposals that achieve better balance among Alaska’s salmon people.”

The proposals advocates, and multiple board members voiced their belief that although the restrictions are difficult for drift fishermen to take now, it will benefit yields for all user groups in the long run.

“Put more fish, smolt run out. They’ll be caught in Kodiak. It’ll increase their yield. They’ll be caught in the Central District drift fleet. It’ll increase their yield. They’ll be caught in the Lower District setnet. It will increase everyone's yield. And I know how it’s easy to think short term on restrictions and how frustrating that is, but I truly believe there will be more fish up there and it will increase everyone’s yield in the future,” board member Payton said.

Heaverly’s concern is that the proposal doesn’t include a way to ease restrictions after northern Cook Inlet salmon stocks improve.

“The drift fleet is a mixed stock fishery, which means that the northern stocks are only some of those that we harvest, so we want all Cook Inlet yields to be healthy. As the department and the board noted many times, however, this was an allocative proposal, restricting our ability to fish not just northern stocks but all Cook Inlet stocks we harvest in the full district. If future yields do happen to increase in the northern district, there is now no mechanism to allow the commercial fishery to share in that abundance by easing restrictions,” Heaverly said.

INRIVER GOAL INCREASED FOR LATE-RUN KENAI SOCKEYE

The board also voted 6-1 to adopt Proposal 88, which increases inriver goals for Kenai River late-run sockeye.

The version passed included

that tweaked the original proposal.

Multiple board members thanked user groups for at odds over the proposal for working out differences in the amended proposal.

Tuesday the board voted unanimously to de-list Susitna River sockeye salmon as a stock of concern.

In 2007 the board listed Susitna sockeye as a yield of concern, which is defined as "a concern arising from a chronic inability, despite the use of specific management measures, to maintain specific yields, or harvestable surpluses, above a stock's escapement needs.”

The vote came at the recommendation of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

“I’m not telling you this was an easy decision. We’ve struggled with this, and we decided that we are making goals, harvests have stabilized or increased moderately,” Pat Shields, Cook Inlet Fisheries Manager with the Division of Commercial Fisheries. “There are restrictions in the drift fishery and restrictions in Northern District gear, set gillnet gear, to reduce the harvest of that stock, and we have recommended maintaining those.”

With the de-listing of Susitna sockeye, there are 15 stocks of concern in the state. Eight of those are in Cook Inlet, and all but two are Chinook.

Susitna sockeye were listed as a stock of yield concern, which is the lowest of three levels ADF&G recognizes.

“I think the actions we’ve taken under the time as a stock of yield concern have worked and have increased yield for everyone by the department’s data on that stock,” board member Israel Payton said. “And I think we should continue with appropriate conservative management measures to increase moving fish into Northern District for all discrete stocks and making escapement goals. Hitting them more consistently will produce more for all users, all the way to Kodiak and Area M, it just will, and Cook Inlet obviously.”

The Board of Fish meetings continue Wednesday morning at 8:30 at the Egan Center.

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