Howard Delo

As I have mentioned before, the Alaska Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting is in Anchorage at the Sheraton Hotel from Feb. 23 to March 8. The meeting will continue every day, including weekends, until all the proposals and other materials contained in the meeting agenda are addressed.

First a little history and then what we in the Northern District are facing at this upcoming meeting. At the 2011 UCI BOF meeting, the concept of a conservation corridor through the center of the inlet designed to pass more northern bound salmon through the commercial fishery was presented. Commercial driftnet fishing would be significantly restricted in this corridor. The BOF passed the proposed restructured plan.

To offset the loss of what most drifters felt were the best places to fish, expanded harvest zones extending 8 to 10 miles into the inlet from the eastern shore were established. These zones were in addition to the so-called “three mile corridor” which had existed for decades along the eastern shore of the inlet.

The ability to fish more time in these expanded harvest zones each week was also a part of the redesign. This was done to allow the drifters to specifically target the sockeye stocks they have always said they were after — the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye. By moving the drift fleet closer to the mouths of the rivers, a higher percentage of the salmon harvested would be fish from those two rivers. Catches of mixed stock fish would be reduced, allowing more fish bound for the Northern District to pass through the Central District commercial driftnet fishery.

This redesign of how the fleet would be allowed to harvest fish in Cook Inlet was based on a similarly structured salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, where the most successful commercial harvest of sockeye salmon in the world occurred.

Legal finagling by the drifters prevented the implementation of this restructured management plan in 2011. When the dust settled in the courtroom, the BOF process was upheld and the redesigned plan was put in place.

The two years of 2012 and 2013 saw commercial catches of sockeye salmon that were some of the better harvests in the past 50 years. The down side involved more fishing time being required to harvest a smaller number of salmon per boat per day. However, the expanded fishing time allowed the harvests to remain average or better for those two years.

The drifters objected to the extra time needed to fish and the extra expense of boat operation to harvest what were fairly “normal” numbers of sockeye those years. They showed up at the 2014 UCI BOF meeting asking that all changes made to the driftnet management plan in 2011 be rescinded.

Preliminary fish return data for the two years indicated that improvements in the numbers of northern bound sockeye were inconclusive, but that returns of coho were significantly improved. The corridor concept was working, at least for coho!

In the world of fisheries management, two years of data can give an indication of a trend but is hardly a definitive, “set-in-stone” fact. When the biological information and apparent trends were presented to the BOF at the 2014 meeting, the board voted unanimously to keep the redesigned plan in place with some slight adjustments to allow additional fishing area for the commercial drift fleet.

The 2014 season harvest was good enough to essentially glut the processors’ warehouses with fish. That glutted market sent the price of fish spiraling down for the 2015 season and commercial fishers suffered from market conditions, not lack of fish. 2016 saw a weaker harvest due to returns significantly below the ADF&G forecasted numbers.

The drifters want to blame all their woes on the conservation corridor/expanded harvest zone structure of the management plan and not recognize market conditions and faulty projections of run return strengths. As a result, 10 proposals presented for the 2017 BOF UCI meeting from drift fleet members or fleet representatives will be deliberated and voted on. Virtually all these proposals want to rescind all recent changes to the driftnet management plan, eliminating all gains the Northern District has seen over the past five years.

If these commercial drift fleet proposals are passed by the board, salmon fishing in Cook Inlet and its tributaries would be oriented almost entirely toward the commercial fleets, ignoring private sports anglers, sport fishing guides, and, worst of all, the salmon resources themselves.

What can you do about this? We’ll talk next time!

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