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How to manage Kenai king returns?

By Heather Hintze 9:11 PM January 31, 2014

Setnetters and sportfishermen are split on how to best handle a record-low return of king salmon.

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Board of Fisheries is tasked with determining how to best manage a record-low return of Kenai king salmon.

“Very clearly the problem has to do with conditions in the ocean, the environmental conditions in the ocean. We know there’s ups and downs, there’s good years and bad years and we’re in an extended period of bad years,” said senior fish scientist Ray Bearmsederfer. “Now the trick when that happens is to regulate the fisheries so that we don’t over-fish on these weak runs and drive them to lower levels and prolong the period of low returns.”

What to do depends on who you ask: Setnetters and sportfishermen are squaring off in the debate.

In 2012 the sportsfishing industry took a big financial hit when the Kenai River closed to king fishing for almost the entire summer. Guides had to take clients out for reds instead.

Kenai River Sportsfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said additional restrictions on setnetting could help manage kings.

“It’s just an on/off switch right now,” Gease said. “Are there intermediate steps you can take from going to a full-on fishery to a full-off fishery? That might be reduction in the size of the nets, shallow them up, might be removing a couple nets here and there. Those are things we can look forward to.”

That same summer, setnetters were also sidelined for most of the season to conserve kings.

They only fished a handful of days and lost millions of dollars.

Setnetters’ main target is red salmon — which is expected to have a strong run this year — but they also catch kings in the process.

Mark Powell owns Alaska Salmon Processors that works exclusively with fish caught by setnet.

He said it doesn’t make sense for the commercial industry to stay out of the water when it only catches a small percentage of kings.

“That’s been the idea that’s been put out to the public that working together to limit the setnetters more is the answer,” Powell said. “Our contention is over the past 30 years we’ve been limited so much that we only fish a month’s period. The main problem with the Kenai king salmon is the early run that we’ve not fished on in 50 years.”

He said the answer is to limit the time guides have on the Kenai River instead.

“Unless we address the problems of the in river issues, we are not going to solve the problem by limiting the commercial set net fishery more and continuing to over scape these rivers with way too many sockeye,” Powell said. “That’s not the biological answer.”

Each industry said the health of the fishery is the main priority. Without it, they’re all out of work.

“Being closed doesn’t help either side. If we open the season with bait and try to fish the full season with bait, we’d harvest too many fish,” Gease said. “If you open the season and try to fish the regular number of hours that the set netters traditionally fish when there’s no king conservation concerns, you’re going to harvest too many fish in that fishery. Both of us need to work together and cooperate in order to step down the harvest while allowing the fisheries to continue.”

It’s ultimately up to the Alaska Board of Fisheries to determine how kings are managed and which group will be most impacted by the restrictions.

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