Board of Fish Looks At Kenai King Salmon Issues

Shaylon Cochran

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     As a state Board of Game meeting wrapped up in Kenai this week, the Board of Fish got to work at the statewide fin-fish meeting in Anchorage Tuesday. The board is addressing king salmon issues affecting fishing industries on the Kenai Peninsula.

    This is a meeting salmon fisherman have been waiting for since last August, when a disastrous Chinook and sockeye season finally ended, having seen major restrictions and numerous closures in the face of above average returns of red salmon and below average returns of kings.

     A task force was established to bring together the various user groups affected by last year’s management decisions, to try and find some consensus on the best methods that could be put in place to avoid those same outcomes and keep nets and lines in the water when the fish actually show up. Little consensus was found, but the Board of Fisheries, after hearing public testimony over the course of two days, began deliberating some of the proposals on Thursday.

     Proposal 249 directly addresses last year’s issues and calls for the Board to consider regulatory changes to management plans for Kenai River King salmon. Any changes would be based on possible changes to escapement goals. The range discussed by the Task Force for an optimal escapement goal was 13,000 to 30,000 fish.

     The question of if the department can better manage the fishery within a new escapement goal range was raised by board member Tom Kluberton, who also co-chaired the task force. Fish and Game regional management biologist Tom Vania said new sonar data alone would improve management decisions in 2013.

     “Would this be better than nothing or is the SEG (sustainable escapement goal) just enough to fix it?” Kluberton asked.

     “Either of those management plans, I believe we can manage for,” Vania said. “We have a DIDSON-based goal with DIDSON equipment so we’re already miles ahead of managing based upon indices of abundance, so that right there sets us on a much  better path, and much better ability to assess run abundance coming into the river,” he said.

     There’s been no question that DIDSON sonar counts of king salmon are more accurate than older methods, but how to properly factor in those new numbers with historical data remains a challenge, as Department sportfish biologist Bob Clark explained to the board. He said even though the new escapement goal is numerically lower than in year’s past, it doesn’t necessarily represent fewer fish.

     “If you hearken back to my presentation where I  showed the target strength-based data versus the DIDSON data, there’s really…no simple conversion between our old data and our new data. And that translates all the way through to the escapement goal,” Clark said.

     There is language in the proposal that addresses last year’s issue of an unusually late return. If the Department concludes that a sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 fish will be met, the commissioner can extend the season by emergency order, one week into August, giving the inriver community more opportunities for harvest.

     Strategies to keep setnetters in the water this year are geared mostly toward timing. Instead of a complete closure if the projected escapement dips below a certain level, setnet sites would be limited to 36 hours of operation per week, with one continuous 36 hour closure during the same week. As board member Vince Webster explains, the new plan would essentially split the king season in two, one period between July 10th and 21st and a second one for the rest of the king run after the 21st.

     “After the 21st, there’s total closure if the forecasted escapement is below 15,000. But it gives them additional tools and rather than have a total closure, the Department has a tool for the setnetters to reduce gear by aggregate length. They could reduce that gear rather than give them a total closure. This is what the user asked us for  last year, this is what the Department asked us for last year, and that’s all this does,” Webster said.

     The board is scheduled to continue hearing statewide proposals through Friday, with deliberations taking place over the weekend.

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