The Alaska Board of Fisheries is in the midst of two weeks of meetings on potential changes to fishing regulations in the Upper Cook Inlet. The meetings have become the most recent venue for what are often referred to as the “fish wars.” Commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen all depend on a finite resource, and all of them want to make sure they get their share of the stock. Often, discussions center around the Kenai and Kasilof, but the Mat-Su Borough is doing its best to shift some focus to the Susitna River as well. Acting Borough Fish Commission chair Larry Engel says that sustainability has become a serious problem for the Valley.
“We’ve had a number of years of real, real shortage [with] multi-species. Very serious problems as far as spawning numbers [and] sustainability. We’ve got what’s called “stock of concern.” We have seven of the statewide stocks of concern in the Valley.”
A stock of concern occurs when a particular species is having trouble sustaining itself, including situations where efforts by Fish and Game to manage the fishery have not significantly improved the situation.
In testimony to the Board, Mat-Su Fish Commissioner Howard Delo says that the issues that lead to unsustainable stocks are not new. He referenced a memo from 1988 which laid out the issue of a mixed fishery stock, meaning multiple species were traveling the same route at the same time, leading to bycatch.
“The point I’d like to make there is not only the mixed stock, which we are all aware of, but the fact that Susitna Sockeye were considered one of the major three stocks in Cook Inlet. In contrast, the Board’s 2014 forecast on run strength shows the Kenai at around 4 million, and the projected return for the Susitna is 260,000.”
Delo used the numbers to indicate that the Susitna Sockeye run has diminished to the point that it is no longer a “major” stock. Mac Minard, a 27 year veteran of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and consultant to the Mat-Su Fish Commission, says that the stocks in the Cook Inlet rivers are to a point where conservation needs to be the priority.
“We’re looking for you to kind of grab a new gear, adopt a framework that is conservation based and delivers fish up the Mat-Su. Maybe in three years or in six years we can be back and argue about increased bag-limits, but, for the time being, we’re trading of harvest opportunity for conservation.”
Commercial fishermen, including the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, do not believe that bycatch and over-harvesting in before salmon reach fresh water is the issue. They point to issues such as habitat degradation, predation, disease, and other factors that impact how many young fish make it to the ocean in the first place.
Some restrictions have already been approved, including the shortening of some commercial nets so that fewer Chinook salmon, which swim deeper than Sockeyes, are caught by accident. The Board of Fisheries will meet until February 13th, and will continue to consider the over 200 proposed changes to fishing regulations in state waters.