In a 4 to 3 vote by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Anchorage today, the Mat-Su Basin fisheries were dealt a blow. The commercial drift gillnet fishing fleet will be allowed more time in the Conservation Corridor—a protected fish passing lane to the north, hard won by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish & Wildlife Commission at the last board meeting in 2014 and staunchly defended this week before a Fish Board who was mostly deaf to the conservation plight.
The vote undoes a unanimous 7 to 0 vote from 2014 with three of the same members reversing their vote this year.
“Concern over the efficiency of the drift fleet trumps our concern over depressed stocks,” said Mac Minard, a former state biologist and Mat-Su Fish Commission consultant. “More troubling than this action is the justification for it,” Minard said.
Before the vote, Board of Fisheries Member Israel Payton told his peers the Board’s mandate was not to vote for allocation of fish but to vote for fish sustainability. Payton voted against opening this new area to fish.
Fish board members who voted for increased fishing time in the Corridor said they wanted to make parity for the pain felt by drift commercial fishermen. Drifters had testified about their harmed livelihood. Drift revenues say otherwise. Since the Corridor was adopted in 2011, the drift fishery revenue (ex-vessel value) has included four of the highest revenue years since 1990.
Mat-Su Fish Commissioner Larry Engel has long said when it comes to fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet, Kenai drives it. The pursuit of the Kenai sockeye determines the fate of the northern sockeye and coho salmon. Drift gillnet fisherman are targeting Kenai sockeye but wind up harvesting significant numbers of northern coho as bycatch. The drifters catch these cohos at great numbers incidentally even though the coho harvest is set out in regulations to be a sportfish priority. Drifters also catch northern sockeye.
Fish Board Chair John Jensen said it appears the corridor is working to move more fish north, so we’re saving fish, but are we saving too many fish?
“That fries me,” later said Howard Delo, Mat-Su Borough Fish Commissioner, of Jensen’s upside down thinking.
The Corridor was put in place to restore dwindling northern fish numbers. Upticks on key rivers in 2014 and 2015 for coho and in 2015 for sockeye showed promise, but escapement goals, or healthy returns of salmon, have not been consistently met.
Northern coho returns had recently reached 20-year lows before the Corridor. 8 of the State’s 14 Stocks of Concern, or struggling fish stocks, are in the Mat-Su Basin. The viability of already-struggling Susitna sockeye is also at risk. Expansion of commercial drift fishing into the Conservation Corridor will harvest large numbers of Susitna sockeye jeopardizing the health of this declining stock. “By ADF&G estimates this means that 50,000 sockeye that are normally chugging through the Corridor are now reallocated to the Drift fishery,” Delo said.
The Corridor had given struggling northern sockeye and coho a chance to return to the Susitna, Yentna, and Knik rivers by removing the gauntlet of nets in the Central District fishing grounds at the height of the mixed-stock run, July 16-31. However, with a new 12-hour period of drift boat fishing per week in this once-protected area, commercial fishermen can now haul in tens of thousands of fish. The drift fleet is capable of harvesting more than a hundred thousand fish in a single opening. More coho are caught in the Corridor than in the harvest zones that are closer to shore.
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game staff said as many as 5,000 extra northern coho may be caught by drifters. However, Minard says the number depends on abundance and timing and could be quite a bit higher.
The Fisheries Board broke for lunch after the vote. Not only sports fishermen and sports guides in the Mat-Su basin will feel the effects of this vote, Northern District setnetters, Tyonek subsistence users, personal use dipnetters on Fish Creek will also have less opportunity to catch fish.