Feds Declare Disaster for Low King Salmon Returns

Shaylon Cochran


     Another step toward relief for Cook Inlet fishermen was taken Thursday. In a letter to Governor Sean Parnell, acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank declared that failed commercial fisheries in Cook Inlet constitute a fishery resource disaster.
     The declaration issued Thursday doesn’t direct any relief funding to fishermen. It simply provides a basis from which Congress can decide to appropriate funding in the future. Without that direct funding, the declaration has little meaning, said Brent Johnson, Borough Assembly member and commercial setnet fisherman.
     “Why should the government pay setnetters, when setnetters could have put nets in the water and earned some money?” he asked.  Johnson would like to see more emphasis put on adjusting management policies so that shut-downs of this magnitude don’t occur.
     In her letter to Governor Parnell, Secretary Blank stated that causes for poor Chinook salmon returns are unknown, but may involve a variety of factors outside the control of fisheries managers to mitigate. That’s why many are calling for more research into salmon life cycles and habitat, including Ricky Gease of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
     “Many of our management plans were crafted with high abundance in mind,” Gease said.  ”Now that we’re in times of low abundance, we need to reevaluate those plans.”
     He said he’d like to see the Parnell administration working with the federal government to conduct more research which could be used to craft more adaptable, effective policy.
     The Board of Fisheries was slated to tackle the problem of late run King salmon in Cook Inlet next year.  Both commercial and sportfishing groups have submitted Agenda Change Requests asking that the board address the issue at its meeting in October.
     “We want the Board to look at some solutions…so that both the in-river and commercial fisheries can continue to be prosecuted in these times of very low King salmon abundance,” Gease said.
     The sportfishing and commercial user groups were both hit hard by this years’ low and late run of kings, but lost in the shuffle is the subsistence user group.
     Rose Tepp of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe said the tribe’s allotment was cut in half this year due to the closures, from 8,000 Kings to 4,000.
     One of the surprises of 2012 was how late the run came in, with a significan portion of the escapement goal coming in after July 31st.  Tepp said after the fishing seasons were closed, she and her husband’s cousin had some luck at the Kenaitze tribal net, pulling in 14 fish.
     “We canned it and shared with the rest of the families…that’s very important to us,” Tepp said.  ”Whatever we get we share so that somebody’s got something to eat in the winter time,” she said.
     Tepp sees competition over the resource from the various user groups as the biggest challenge in sustaining the fishery for everyone.
     “How can we solve this problem instead of pitting one user group against another?” she asked.  ”We’re always left out.  That doesn’t mean I’m totally angry…it doesn’t do me any good to be angry.  It’s better if we all sit down and talk and work toward a good result, an end result, for all user groups,” she said.
     The Board of Fisheries meets in Anchorage next month. Several agenda change requests have been made regarding the late run King salmon management plan, including a review and revision of current escapement goals, the time period the management plan is effective, burden of conservation between user groups and priority of certain escapement goals.
     Commissioner Blank’s letter said that if Congress does appropriate disaster relief, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will work with the State of Alaska and the Alaska Federation of Natives to work out a spending plan that would help identify the root causes of the disaster and ways to prevent similar situations in the future.