The tools for Cook Inlet are State of the art for managing Kenai sockeye salmon. But unfortunately managing for that one dominant species (Kenai sockeye) can have major, major impacts on other species. And those are the species that come to this area. These remarks are part of an overview on what's challenging the strength of our salmon runs as presented to local Legislators recently by Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Larry Engel.
View a video of Engel's slides with his narration (the sound gets louder). View the slides posted here also without voice. View some images from the Jan. 3 meeting. Slides were created by Larry Engel and Mat-Su Borough Public Affairs.
Here are Mat-Su Borough Fish Commissioner Larry Engel's remarks nearly verbatim:
We have an increasing number of residents who are becoming dissatisfied. The reason they're becoming dissastisfied because of the very frequent closures of so many of our fisheries. And at even those that remain open the fishing is poor. And that results in closures. ... We once we had over 400,000 days of (sports fishermen) participation that’s dropped to as low as 160,000 and has been hovering at 200,000 days of fishing for years.
Deterioration of Fish Economics
When participation drops the economics of the fisheries also deteriorates. ... In 2007, it was well over $100 milion in economic resources. Next month we’ll have results for 2016. I expect to see a great deterioration in our economic importance.
8 of 18 Stocks of Concern are Here
We have 8 of the statewide 18 Stocks of Concern right here in our backyard. It’s a label given to fishery resources by the Board of Fish and Dept. of Fish & Game because of poor health, identified as failing chronically to make escapement goals and provide harvest. ... The entire Susitna Sockeye run has been a Stock of Concern for over 10 years, that’s 2 lifecycles.
Kenai Sockeye-Centric Management
One of the reasons we have problems with our fisheries resources is related to the way the commercial fisheries is managed in Cook Inlet. Now i don't want to identify this as the only source of our problems, we have some marine water problems with our king salmon but this is something we can deal with the way we manage the fishery. How do we manage the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet, how have we done it historically? It's dominated by management to maximize the benefit of Kenai River sockeye salmon and that's done because that’s the most valued resource to the commercial fishery. The tools for Fish & Game in Cook Inlet are State of the Art for managing Cook Inlet sockeye salmon. We have sonar counters, genetics... But unfortunately managing for that one dominant species can have major major impacts on other species, and those are the species that come to this area.
Mat-Su Produces More of All Other Salmon
The area of Northern Cook Inlet, our Borough, produces more coho salmon, more king salmon, more pink salmon and more chum salmon than anywhere else in Cook Inlet. There are however more sockeye the dominant fish for commercial fishery produced on the Kenai.
Funnel-Shaped Water Body with Commercial Fishing Gauntlet
One of the difficulties of managing the salmon runs of this area. Look at this it’s a funnel shaped waterbody. The fish that come in from the ocean have to travel all the way up to our areas..throughout the commercial fishery there’s over 1,300 units of fishing gear in the Central District alone.
The timing of overlapping month of July and really August we’ve got all four species of salmon there that are harvested in the commercial fishery. And salmon that head to this area through that fishery have roughly a 150-mile gauntlet to compete with before they get to our fishing grounds.
Conservation Corridor is the Solution
What is the solution to this problem? This is an issue that our Commission has been working on for more than a decade with some progress. It requires that we fish more often, the commercial fishery, in closer to shore where the stocks of fish are more separated. If you fish in the area that’s identified as a Conservation Corridor, the offshore waters, all these species of salmon are mixed there. And fishermen prefer to fish there, commercial fishermen, because the fish are more concentrated in certain areas out there around tide rips and able to catch a lot of fish that are bound for areas such as ours. But by fishing in closer to shore it would be more like the discreet harvest management of Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay does not fish all over the Bay. They fish in tight little ares close to shore where they can manage these discreet stockes. Because Egegik may have a strong run. Naknek may have a weak run. Nushagak may have a medium run, but if fishing out there with the mix how do you adjust your fishing time? So you put them in tight to shore. And that’s the concept we’re talking about here, fish more often in the green area close to shore and less often out in the blue Conservation Corridor, where they're mixed. And it’s working. See this graph. That you catch a lot of coho offshore, almost all bound for our areas in July and Aug., than you do when you fish in the inshore area.
Kenai Sockeye Runs Drive What Gets Through Corridor
Kenai drives the use of this conservation corridor. The regulations say that if one of kenai sockeye is predicted to be 2.3 million (run) or less we get maximum passage because using the Conservation Corridor all the time. If 2.3 to 4.6 million is moderate passage (of northern fish). If beyond 4.6 million our fish don’t get through because they’re fishing almost daily in the mixed area.
This past year we had a 2.3 million prediction (ADF&G). The corridor was put into effect a lot. We made all of our escapement goals for the first time since the escapement goals were made.
North Pacific Management Council and a Lawsuit
One of the major issues facing our fisheries right now are in the hands of the North Pacfic Fisheries Management Council. It’s essentially the regulatory body that manages our fisheries resources in federal waters, off the coast of Alaska, beyond three miles. And a lawsuit came before the 9thCircuit Court saying the Council’s transfer of authority to manage the federal waters of Cook Inlet to the State (It’s always been managed by the State since statehood.) did this inappropriately. This lawsuit came from the commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet. And now the North Council has to write a management plan for how they foresee the management of cook inlet salmon in federal waters. And this is where they catch one heck of a lot of salmon in Cook Inlet. It’s basically all waters south of Kalgin Island. The North Council put out request for membership on a stakeholder group to put together, be in compliance with the federal court ruling. We put in a request to be on that group. The only people appointed to this stakeholder group are commercial fishermen. So whatever comes out of this court-mandated rewrite of the management plan it could be that federal is taking over the whole thing like it did before statehood. Or it could be that we’ll come up with something reasonable. The waters that we’re talking about is right where all the stocks are mixed, and all the work we’ve done could be challenged by whatever happens on this court mandate.
Tight budget, Programs Lost
The Conservation Corridor depends on scientific research. That’s how we’ve been convincing the Board of Fisheries. It’s just the way we need to start managing our fisheries. We need better understanding of migration timing and patterns of the various stocks and species that pass through in Cook Inlet. We need more precise escapement goals. WE need to have understanding of exploitation rates and return per spawner type information. We worked with many of you to get a genetic study of coho salmon in Cook Inlet. We’ve had that kind of information for over 15 years for sockeye, but we just started getting it for coho. We had 3-4 years under our belt but it was lost to budget cuts.
DNA Shows Vulnernability in the North
One example of getting DNA from our fish. I fyou look at his slide, You can see that Susitna Sockeye, which I’ve already identified as a Stock of Concern (unhealthy), a pair of sockeye from Susitna will produce roughly three adults and that will allow us to harvest one and still have two come back and maintain the resource. The Kenai on the otherhand is a very very productive system. Sockeye there, momma and pappa sockeye there, can produce 8 or 9 returning adults so you can exploit those at up to 75 percent. Knowing this, what if they’re all mixed together out there where you’re fishing. Are you going to exploit at level of desireable and acceptable for Kenai which could be 75 percent of the fish, what would that do to the fish that are coming back to this area that are only producing 1 harvestable sockeye? It wreaks havoc.
That’s the importance of having genetic information to understand the productivity of the runs so you can establish reasonable exploitation rates and hopefully that exploitation will occur where they are not mixed together.
North Shore Test Fishery Funding Gone
One of the tools we were using to better understand the migration patterns through Cook Inlet was this North Shore Test Fishery. Again, this Commission worked through the Delegation to get funding for this. We got it for five years. Unfortunately, there was a problem in contracting for this. We only got three years of use out of it. Very valuable three years but we didn’t get the last two years there were in the budget. The money got consumed elsewhere in the ADFG budget. That was very important tool.
Escapement Goals A Must
Another thing fight hard to maintain are escapement goals. I think everybody realizes that escapement goals are the cornerstone of management. You can’t ensure the health of your fish without having escapement goals and achieving those escapement goals. Each one of these we have here in Northern Cook Inlet have been subject to being eliminated due to budget problems. Hopefully we will maintain those.
Very active in replacing archaic culverts.
We funded a number of pike studies to better understand this invasive species and on elodea. Eliminated from one lake.
Money came from work that you folks have done.
$2.5 million in 2014 that the Borogh was able to use to fund fisheries.
We’d like your help however possible to ensure the maximum use out of the Conservation Corridor concept, funding restored for genetic sampling of the commercially caught coho. We’d like to see that line I spoke about where I said we got three of five years, see funding restored.
Legislator questions: State Rep. Colleen Sullivan Leonard asked if any pike suppression programs were ongoing.
We have funded ways to help control pike, Engel said. This is one we can correct.
Mat-Su Borough Fish Commissioners are: Mike Wood, Dan Mayfield, Larry Engel, Howard Delo, John Wood, Andy Couch, Jim Sykes, and Bruce Knowles.
Photos by Mat-Su Borough Public Affairs.