Commercial fish report shows impact of set-net closure
A recent report from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game shows the impact of the closure of a prominent fishery on the 2023 season for the commercial salmon industry in Upper Cook Inlet. Set-netters are worried about the future of their fishery, and the possible long-term impacts of over escapement.
In Upper Cook Inlet, the report says, the 2023 commercial salmon harvest was about 40% lower than the 20-year average. Commercial fishermen caught 1.9 million salmon in the upper inlet, compared to the 20-year average of 3.1 million.
Fish & Game attributes most of that decline to the closure of the east side set-net fishery, which the department closed before the season even began in anticipation of low king salmon numbers.
“And that’s all just to prioritize the king salmon in their weak state,” said Colton Lipka, Fish & Game’s area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet.
“Generally, the east side set-net fishery does make up a large proportion of the sockeye catch, and participation,” Lipka said. “On a 20-year average, you have around 347 permits that would participate in that fishery. When you’re talking about an overall Upper Cook inlet participation of 920 or so, it's a good chunk of the fishery that did not prosecute this year.”
Set-netters know how much they lost out on this year. Last week, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed a resolution asking the governor to declare an economic disaster in the fishery. The borough estimated east side set-netters lost about $7 million in possible earnings because of the closure.
“For us, it was a very difficult and disastrous year,” said Ken Coleman, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.
And he said the issue isn’t just this year’s losses; his organization believes the over-escapement of sockeyes could mean bad things for the population in the future.
“In our want and desire to make sure that the king run comes back and becomes healthy, we may actually be hurting the sockeye salmon, and instead of having two positives, we might very well have two negatives: a week king run, and in the future, a weak sockeye run,” he said.
Coleman believes over escapement can put too much pressure on a river or lake system, and make food sources scarce for young salmon.
In the Kenai River, Fish & Game had an upper escapement goal of 1.4 million for sockeye. About 2.3 million total fish made it to the weir 19 miles into the river. In the Kasilof, escapement also far exceeded the optimal goal.
Lipka, with Fish & Game, said the department isn’t sure yet how the high sockeye escapement this year will affect the fishery.
“How that’s actually going to affect the long-term production of sockeye, it’s yet to be seen. It’s somewhat unexplored territory with the Kenai and Kasilof, with runs this large,” he said. “So, hard to say right at the moment.”
Lipka said the general theory is that going over escapement goals reduces potential returns over time, but there isn’t a robust data set showing what that might look like on the Kenai.
As for kings, optimal escapement goals weren’t met this year, although the runs did meet the lower-threshold sustainable goal. Coleman said based on those numbers, he doesn’t think set-netters with fish again next year.
“We’re trying to find a creative way to not catch king salmon. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that over the past decade I think,” he said. “For instance, we’ve done a lot of gear modifications to keep our nets up off the bottom of the water column where the kings swim, staying closer to the beach, not having as much gear out there. We’re trying to find a way to creatively get those fish to the river so they get to the spawning bed, and we all are better for that.”
The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association has several proposals on the table for the Board of Fish meeting coming up early next year. Coleman said the Board of Fish outcomes will be critical for the commercial fishing industry in the Inlet. The board will meet from February 23 to March 6 in Anchorage.