Cook Inlet Fish Counts - Is ADF&G Still an Honest Broker?

Photo courtesy james Brooks, Flickr, June 5, 2013

Interesting what you run across when you look in nonstandard places for your information. One such place is the quarterly publication of the Alaska Outdoor Council called Outdoor Alaska. The most recent issue, Fall 2015 (Volume 23, issue 1) has a President’s Message by Bill Iverson that takes Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) to task for playing games with fish counts on the Kenai River.

Fish counts on the Kenai for the second run of red salmon are particularly important for all user groups in Cook Inlet, unfortunately the resource appears to be managed so as to maximize the number of red salmon in the nets of the 1,404 commercial fishermen making up the drift fleet in the Inlet. In 2014, commercial harvest was 2.29 million reds, well below their recent average of 3.4 million. In 2014, the total exvessel value of reds caught in Cook Inlet was just under $35 million.

The problem is that those 1,404 users are not the only ones looking for fish. There are just under 36,000 personal use permits issued for three different watersheds – Kenai, Kasilof and Fish Creek – in 2014. Dip net holders took around 380,000 reds out of the Kenai in 2014.

ADF&G reports some 227,000 fishing licenses sold in Southcentral Alaska in 2014. There were also around 9,300 nonresident licenses sold. In 2013, the most recent year that numbers are available, they harvested some 497,000 reds from the Kenai – Kasilof watersheds. Total value of the licenses sold for southcentral was $8.8 million.

Federal subsistence harvests on the Kasilof and Kenai issued 133 permits in 2012 (the most recent year data is available) and harvested just under 1,400 red salmon.

Over the years, the total number of sportfish licenses sold have dropped by a couple tens of thousands. The size of the commercial fleet has remained stable. And the dipnet pressure has increased significantly. As that pressure increases, so does the tension on ADF&G and the Board of Fish to balance the needs of some 272,000 non-commercial fishermen with those of the 1,404 commercial drift fleet permit holders. And to many of us, they haven’t been doing so well in recent years.

Iverson makes the case that the operation of the sonar is not only slipshod given the value of the resource they are using it to manage, but it is displaying no small amount pro-commercial bias, artificially jacking up escapement counts so as to trigger back to back to back Emergency Openings for the commercial fleet. These back to back to back openings all but shut down the flow of salmon into the river, shutting down available fish for personal use, subsistence and sport fishermen.

The proprietor of the Alaska Outdoor Journal web site took his operation to Facebook last year. He has been on the river for over 30 years and has similar complaints. This year he observed that the sonar count conveniently managed to count enough second run king salmon so as to trigger bait fishing for them on the lower Kenai which in turn allowed ADF&G to trigger more back to back to back emergency openings for the commercial fleet, once again shutting down the flow of fish into the river, limiting their availability to other user groups, essentially choosing the needs of the commercial users over those of all others.

If we have two long time observers making the same charge, perhaps this means (sadly) that ADF&G employees are no longer trusted to be honest brokers counting fish. If that is true, then it is time for the legislature to start removing choice from these public employees. Many have pointed out that putting an Alaskan salmon in ones freezer is the highest use of the resource. With that in mind, perhaps it is time to put appropriate restrictions on ADF&G’s ability to game sonar counts.

One way would be to make them continuous, public and open the entire process for the public to watch. Nothing like a little bit of sunshine to make all players involved behave themselves.

Another would be to automate the count process so that coverage would be continuous rather than stopping and starting that data collection / counts at times that are more conveniently supportive of the interests of one user group at the expense of all others.