On Monday, the state Board of Fisheries voted seven-to-zero to accept a change in regulations drafted by the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new rule changes where and when the drift net fleet can go after Sockeye and Coho salmon. Now, drift fishermen would have an expanded early session until mid-July, with a shorter session that begins on July 16th. Also, fishing would be moved primarily to the area near the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. Mac Minard, a consultant with the Mat-Su Commission and long-time Fish and Game biologist, explains the theory behind the change.
“That change in framework moved it from a large, mixed-stock style of fishery management system to a terminal stock fishery management system in an effort to focus the commercial harvests on those very valuable Kenai and Kasilof stocks, while at the same time creating a conservation corridor up the middle of the Inlet to allow the passage of Northern District fish.”
The idea is that by moving the fishery away from the center of the Inlet, that it’s less likely that silvers and reds bound for the Mat-Su rivers would be caught in the same nets as the far more abundant Kenai and Kasilof reds. The new regulations were proposed as part of an effort to address the seven “stocks of concern” in the Mat-Su Valley. Mac Minard says that there isn’t much danger of the intensification of Kenai sockeye fishing harming that run in the near term.
“The Kenai-Kasilof Sockeye fisheries have been very abundant. They’re very prolific; they’re very robust fisheries. It has always been a challenge to be able to harvest that surplus, and still afford conservation measures for Northern District fish.”
Mac Minard says that the impact of the new rules could be seen this summer, as fewer Susitna-bound silvers and reds are caught, and make it through the newly established “conservation corridor.”
Conservation has been the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission’s rallying cry throughout this process. Mac Minard and other Commissioners have argued that the goal is not to immediately have Valley fishermen bring home more salmon. Instead, he hopes it will strengthen the run in the future. Talkeetna-based fishing guide Todd Kingerey agrees.
“This is something looking for the future. In order for you to get more fish, obviously, you have to let more fish in so they can spawn. Hopefully, [you] get a higher survival rate and bigger returns, so this will be something sustainable years down the road. If they get to their escapement goals, they can look at it again commercially, but everybody has to bend.”
Other fishing guides in the Upper Valley say they agree. According to guide Gerry Sousa, it’s important that both the commercial and sports fishing communities pay attention to conservation. Sousa says that he has emphasized catch and release fishing with his business since 1992 in order to avoid overly depleting salmon and trout stocks. With all the talk of enhancing the diminished runs, one big question looms; Will it work? Todd Kingerey thinks it will help significantly.
“Hopefully we’ll see the results of what they’re doing three, four, five years down the line, but, initially, just the number of fish that are probably going to make it back is going to be significantly seen. They did something similar to this five, six, seven years ago…and I saw more silver salmon than I had ever seen before.”
While many sports fishermen are smiling, the commercial interests that will have to comply with the new regulations are not happy with the decision. On Monday, Alaska Salmon Alliance Executive Director Arni Thomson issued a press release slamming what he called “needless, unscientific attacks” on commercial fisheries, and called the decision by the Board of Fisheries “half-baked.” On Tuesday, the Alliance continued to criticize the Board for adopting the Mat-Su Borough’s language, saying that the Borough has been outspoken in its opposition to commercial fishing. Arni Thomson did not return a request for further comment.
While the Board of Fisheries has passed the new drift gillnet regulations, there is always the possibility that commercial fishing groups could mount a legal challenge. While no word has come out yet on whether that option is being considered, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association is already fighting a legal battle to attempt to have all management of the Inlet taken from the state and given over to the federal government. Until the dust settles on the latest salvo in the “Fish Wars,” however, sports fishermen and Mat-Su officials say they have a lot to be happy about.