I had to miss this meeting, as I was showing some visitors around our local waters. This is a summary by a person who did attend. Here we are, in the aftermath of another dismal sport fishing season, looking around us at a near absence of coho, on top of an abbreviated king season that saw many rivers restricted preseason, and closed completely mid season, and spawning goals still missed.
Alaska Department of FIsh and Game (ADF&G) Fishery Answers -- Lacking
At a Wednesday August 29, 3 p.m. public meeting in Willow with ADF&G Commissioner Cora Campbell, ADF&G Director of Commercial Fisheries Jeff Regnart, and ADF&G Director of Sport Fisheries Charles Swanton many of the public’s questions went largely unanswered or were answered in a way that showed little or no concern with declining Matanuska - Susitna Valley salmon runs from the Department’s highest level Governor appointed staff members.
For those attending dependent upon salmon fishing in the Mat-Su Valley, the biggest issue was clearly, why does the Department of Fish and Game prioritizes management and harvesting Kenai River sockeye salmon over even achieving minimum escapement goals for salmon bound to Mat-Su Valley destinations? Commercial Fisheries Director, Jeff Regnart attempted to pass responsibility off onto the Alaska Board of FIsheries, but people in the crowd had been played for fools by ADF&G officials before, and would have none of it.
A commercial drift fisherman stated that the Drift Fishery Management Plan listed several drift fishing restrictions during the July fishery to provide escapement of salmon bound for Mat-Su valley streams, and asked Director Regnart to speak to that issue. Regnart replied that indeed there were several provisions in that management plan providing for escapements of Mat-Su valley bound salmon through the entire month of July.
When asked by a Mat-Su fishing guide, Why the Department went outside the same management plan and opened commercial fishing in the area the plan listed as closed to provide for Mat-Su salmon escapement and reasonable fishing opportunities? The Director of Commercial Fisheries’ reply was, “Opening commercial fishing in that area during that period, provided one of the largest commercial harvests of salmon of the entire 2012 season.” Exactly the point people wanted to make --ADF&G’s emergency action targeted a maximum number of the fish (Regnart claimed were protected by the plan) for harvest, without limit, by the most efficient harvesters of salmon in Cook Inlet.
In further rebuttal to Regnart’s statement that the plan provided for Mat-Su bound salmon escapements during the entire month of July, a question was asked, “When the Department projects a Kenai River sockeye salmon run exceeding 4.6 million fish, does the plan remove all mandatory restrictions to the regular drift fishing periods during July?”
5AA 21.353 states: (iii) at run strengths greater than 4,600,0000 sockeye salmon to the Kenai River there will be no mandatory restrictions during regular fishing periods, and Regnart acknowledged this fact, but then went on to state that the Department retains emergency order authority to manage the drift fishery to achieve spawning escapement goals.
Unfortunately, for most people attending this meeting, the Commercial Fish Division with this authority, for the most part, chose to avoid using it -- even when it meant failure to reach even minimum escapement levels for several Mat-Su Valley salmon stocks. Instead Commercial Fish Division exacerbated the problem, by focusing near maximum drift fishery effort on vulnerable salmon stocks transecting the middle portion of Upper Cook Inlet from mid-July into August.
Several Mat-Su and some Kenai Peninsula business owners expressed the economic hardship ADF&G salmon management had placed on their financial situations during 2012. Business loans may be available for some of these individuals through the Division of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development once they have been turned down for a bank loan. One attending business owners lamented a thought I sure was on most meeting attenders’ minds, “What good is a loan if there are no fish, for my business to be able to repay the loan?”
As Alaskan residents, numerous people living in the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage dependent upon the salmon resource for economic well-being, providing food, and recreation asked why the Department was not providing reasonable harvestable surplus numbers of salmon to reach the Mat-Su Valley? One individual acknowledged there seemed to be a whole staff of people in the Department of Fish and Game looking out for Kenai River salmon and the people who harvested them, but who in the Department looked out for Mat-Su Valley bound salmon stocks?
From the Commissioner, the Director of Commercial Fisheries, and the Director of Sport Fisheries -- silence -- was the only answer.
Commercial set netters from the Eastside beaches of the Kenai Peninsula had also suffered through extensive closures of their harvest opportunities during 2012, and attended the meeting. A question asked by set netter Paul Shadura, was shared at least in thought, by nearly everyone attending the meeting, “Given the same circumstances next year, will the Department manage Cook Inlet differently?”
Commissioner Cora Campbell’s answer, “Circumstances are always different.”
Shadura persisted, “If circumstances were only slightly different, would the Department manage differently?”
From the Commissioner there was not even a hint, that the Department would make achieving Mat-Su Valley spawning escapement goals a higher priority. There was also no hint that the Department would even attempt to allow more equitable harvest of Upper Cook Inlet’s salmon bounty.
There were many more thought provoking and interesting points raised in this meeting, than can be covered in a single newspaper column. I would like to thank all who attended, and brought management issues to the attention of the highest level of ADF&G staff. I would like to thank Representative Mark Neuman for hosting this event. While the process is slow -- together we can make a difference for Mat-Su Valley salmon -- and the process has been started.
Failure to achieve minimum salmon spawning escapement goals -- is unacceptable.
Failure to provide reasonable salmon harvest opportunities in the Mat-Su Valley and the Northern portion of Upper Cook Inlet must be addressed.
If ADF&G refuses to consider the whole public, when doling out both conservation burdens and salmon harvest opportunities -- the public should hold Commissioner Campbell, Director Regnart, Director Swanton, and the Parnel Administration responsible.