Fishing for silvers (coho salmon) this year in the Mat-Su Borough was the best in a long time. The Little Susitna River had its largest coho escapement since 2006, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Fish Creek, likewise, enjoyed its strongest coho run since 2002 and also opened to dipnetting for sockeye for the first time in four years. Once again, there were fish in the rivers, and Alaskans were enjoying them.

The uptick in silvers to the Mat-Su is part of what we on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission were asking for last February when we took our plea to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the state’s highest fisheries regulating board. 

It takes fish to make fish, we told them, but in recent years fewer salmon were “escaping” the drift gillnets of Upper Cook Inlet enroute to Mat-Su waters.

In February, by a vote of 7 to 0, the Board of Fisheries agreed on changes to commercial fishing regulations for the drift gillnet fleet in Upper Cook Inlet. 

The new regulations required drifters to fish more often in coastal waters closer to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. When commercial fishermen pursue sockeye closer to their “home” drainages, the offshore salmon migrating north, like coho, have a better chance of reaching their spawning grounds.

Targeting sockeye in more discreet in-shore harvest zones is also how Bristol Bay, the world’s most famous salmon fishery, has been managed for decades. We think it’s a good idea to emulate that successful model in Upper Cook Inlet.

I want to point out a commercial management inconsistency that most Alaskans are unaware of for Upper Cook Inlet. The Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan and before that the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan for more than 35 years have stipulated that the drift fishery harvest of northern bound coho is to be minimized in order to provide sport fishermen a reasonable opportunity to harvest these salmon. Until now, implementation of this clear directive has not been happening. For years, the drift gillnet fleet has caught substantial amounts of northern bound coho as “bycatch,” while they are actually targeting Kenai sockeye. Their harvest has averaged more than 100,000 coho per year over the past decade, while the entire Mat-Su sport fishery has harvested only about 65,000 per year over the same time. Nearly twice as many fish caught in a commercial net is a hearty bycatch.

This year was a game-changer. It’s the first time, in several years, that regulations significantly enforced the longstanding intent of the management plan, by providing a meaningful conservation corridor for coho and other salmon to swim north. At the same time, the commercial drift fishery had another excellent year enjoying high sockeye catches and good prices. In fact, the 2014 harvest is the 9th highest value in the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery since 1960. 

Even with last summer’s solid shot of silvers into a few drainages, Mat-Su salmon returns for other species — sockeye and kings — have been plummeting to such low levels that their reproduction is at risk. There are 12 so-called Stocks of Concern statewide, with eight of them right here in Northern Cook Inlet.

Issues on the high seas are likely major factors affecting king salmon. But for coho and sockeye, the problems occur both in fresh and Cook Inlet marine waters. 

Uncomfortable with the February changes to fishing regulations, some leaders of the commercial drift fleet heap blame on Mat-Su habitat as the main cause for the area’s weak salmon returns.

We do have fresh water problems, but they are limited within the vast 25,000 square miles of the diverse Mat-Su salmon habitat. Culverts that block fish passage, salmon-eating pike and invasive aquatic weeds are not unique to Mat-Su waters. 

The Mat-Su is tending to its freshwater. The National Fish Habitat Partnership recognized the Mat-Su Borough in November as a national leader in fish habitat conservation. It is the third national award credited to the region.

Here’s why:

In the Mat-Su

• 7,000 acres of high-value salmon habitat have been protected. 

• $1.8 million has been awarded to the Mat-Su Basin Salmon Partnership (over 55 members) for habitat projects since 2006 from the National Fish Habitat Partnership.

• In 2014, the number of culverts replaced for salmon passage reached 100, restoring well over 100 miles of fish habitat at a cost of $8 million. Keep in mind, these culverts are well to the east of our major salmon-producing rivers.

• We host an annual Salmon Symposium that examines Mat-Su habitat  

Yes, there’s more work to be done. All-out warfare has occurred at Alexander Creek, one of the most troublesome pike areas. Since 2011, more than 15,000 pike have been removed. According to Fish and Game, last summer the pike harvest in Alexander Creek was down to a point where floaters and residents were actually complaining that they couldn’t catch pike.

Despite the great importance of our Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, remarkably little quantitative information is available on the migratory behavior of the various species. Although the fishery has been occurring for well over 100 years, I find that too many harvest practices remain based on assumptions rather than on sound scientific data.

Without question, the management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon is complicated by the great differences in the biological productivity of the various species and stocks and their overlapping run timing. Kenai sockeye are highly productive and can be harvested heavily but many northern migrating salmon cannot withstand similar harvest pressure. Maximizing the benefit from a strong stock can come at a cost to others as has happened all too often for Mat-Su salmon. 

Management of the Inlet’s weak- and strong-stock “mix” often results in substantial conflict among user groups. When commercial fishermen have a banner year for sockeye, sportsfishermen often face closures because of few returning cohos. By studying when and where specific stocks and species are located, hotly contested harvest practices can hopefully be fine-tuned to benefit all users of this common property resource.

Alaskans must get behind science such as genetic sampling, dedicated test fisheries, and acoustic telemetry so we can better understand the behavior of salmon as they pass through Cook Inlet. Future regulations must be based on science not intelligent hunches.

Let’s look out for the resource first. The Alaska Board of Fisheries agreed, 7 to 0. It takes fish to make fish. If we manage with sound science, there’ll be plenty of fish for everybody, including our grandkids.

Larry Engel is a former Chair of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish biologist and a volunteer member of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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