Increased Kenai River sockeye escapement goals before Board of Fish

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Proposals to increase escapement goals for Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon drew passionate response from stakeholders during the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage Monday morning.

Sockeye salmon congregate before spawning. (KTUU)

The board heard input from stakeholders on 16 proposals that could change to the Kenai late-run sockeye management plan. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s proposal to increase inriver escapement goal ranges created a clear divide between sportfishing and commercial fishing interests.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game implemented the current sustainable escapement goal range of 700,000 to 1.2 million late-run sockeye in 2011. In its review of salmon escapement goals in Upper Cook Inlet through 2019, ADF&G recommended the Board of Fisheries increase the sustainable escapement goal range to 750,000 to 1.3 million sockeye.

The proposal from KRSA takes the recommendation from ADF&G and adds more fish to that count.

“The state recognized this year that they need to increase the sustainable escapement goal on the river, the SEG. Proposal 88 matches that increase with a corresponding increase for the inriver goal which allows for sportfish harvest, and it also adds a little bit extra in there in recognition of the 25 percent population growth that we’ve had over the last 25 years,” said Ben Mohr, KSRA Executive Director.

Learn more about the different types of escapement goals here.

The proposal was the first heard of the day and framed much of the public input that would follow in the first block of the portion of the meeting.

Commercial fishermen and others directly related to the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet spoke against the proposal. While some voiced concerns that the proposal would be a move in a direction that could push commercial fishermen out of business, much of the input focused on whether or not increasing the escapement would result in a stronger or weaker run.

“There’s a limited capacity to what our lakes can hold. It’s not just the number of fish you put in there. A lot of people would like to think that you put in more fish, more will come back. But it’s going to be like overgrazing. Putting a lot of cattle on a limited amount of land wasn’t a good idea, and the habitat still hasn’t recovered,” said Matt Haakenson, a Fleet Manager for Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai.

Haakenson says the goals from ADF&G are good, science-based goals, but further increasing escapement goals beyond what has already been determined is not the best management practice.

“Increased escapement goals are not going to necessarily create more fish. The benefit, the reason they proposed this is there will be more fish in the rivers, and result in higher success rate for sportfishing - for a year or two. But once those runs start coming back, the fish will be smaller. They’re depriving themselves of food, destroying their own habitat because there’s not enough to feed them all,” Haakenson said.

Monday those who wrote proposals before the board were able to present their proposal, and the board took additional information from the stakeholders and the public in attendance. Tuesday the board is scheduled to begin deliberations and make decisions on two groups of proposals presented Monday.

In the deliberations over proposed increases to escapement goals, one key to watch will be not if the board believes that over escapement is good or bad, but rather if the board thinks proposed increases constitutes over escapement.

ADF&G published a report on the biological and fishery-related aspects of sockeye over escapement in 2007. The report reviewed 40 Alaskan sockeye stocks and found that over escapement occurred at least once in a 15 year period in most of the stocks, but there was no long-term stock collapse. The report states that most of the annual losses where foregone harvest due to over escapement occurred were less than 5 percent of the run when averaged across all 15 years analyzed.

In the Kenai River, escapements about 1.5 times above the upper goal range set from 2004 to 2006 produced the largest fry population but the smallest size fry ever observed in Skilak lake at the time of the report. Those findings led to concerns about the ability of the fry to survive overwinter.

The meeting Monday was largely a one-way street, with the public providing input to the board for consideration. ADF&G biologists presented staff reports to board members on Friday and will be able to answer questions from the board during deliberations regarding the latest science on the topic.

Mohr says that overescape concerns raised against his organization’s proposal aren’t justified, in part because having more fish in the river will result in more sportfishermen in the river.

“The over escapement argument is actually overblown on the Kenai River. There’s a very miniscule possibility that true biological over escapement could happen on the Kenai. Instead, it’s code for missed harvest opportunity by some user groups,” Mohr said. “What we’re asking for is recognizing that the state says we should be putting more fish into the river, and also recognizing that when we do that, more Alaskans are going to want to come and harvest those fish. So we need to be prepared for that need.”

In addition to the proposals to the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Management Plan, the Board of Fisheries is also expected to begin deliberations on a second set of proposals including those affecting the Central District Drift Fishery Management Plan and Upper Cook Inlet coho salmon.

You can find more information and all documents for the meeting here.

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