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Kenai kings escapement, conservation at issue

The commercial setnet season was closed about a week early this year, with the season ending Sunday.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game cited the "1 percent rule" as the reason behind the closure. The rule states that if the total setnet fleet catch is less than 1 percent of the total season's catch for two consecutive days, Fish and Game has the authority to end the season.

Fish and Game biologist Pat Shields said even if the 1 percent mark was exceeded, the fishery was going to be shut down anyway. That's due to one of this summer's most contentious fishing subjects -- Kenai king management and conservation.

"Either the 1 percent rule would go in to effect, or if we had exceeded 1 percent on Sunday, the fishery was going to stay closed for king conservation," Shields said. "The commissioner had directed the department to close the east side setnets for either one of those two justifications."

Rob Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association said the early closure is a lost opportunity to harvest sockeye, but conservation ultimately wins out.

"We're always for conservation," Williams said. "In fact for the two weeks during the meat of our season, we probably fished a little more than 50 percent of the hours allotted to us -- just to help conserve those king salmon stocks and do our part to get 'em in the river."

Williams, however, is worried about some of the commercial fishermen in the Salamtof and North Kalifornsky Beach areas who normally gain a third of their income in August.

Kenai River Sport Fishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease is concerned the escapement minimum for king salmon may not be met this year. If that were to happen, Gease said, it could cause issues with future runs and the low escapement numbers in 2009 and 2010 could also compound the issue.

However, it is too early to tell what those escapement numbers will actually be, Jason Pawluk, Fish and Game assistant area management biologist said.

"When you have chronic escapement problems, then it could potentially make it a stock of concern," Gease said. "That's what they've done in other rivers when they haven't had minimum escapement."

Even though the setnet season was stopped short, Fish and Game Commercial Fisheries Director Jeff Regnart said overall it was a "pretty good year."

"Sometimes these endings aren't as clean as you like," Regnart said. "From a commercial industry standpoint, economically, it was a good year."

Williams, however, has begun to question how Fish and Game enumerates the escapement for the late-run Kenai River king salmon.

"That's my frustration right now -- they don't have a good tool other than our catch and the catch in the river to gage the size of the run," he said. "So it leaves everything open to interpretation way too much, it's a big gray area."

Gease said prior to this season, the "1 percent rule" correlated with two consecutive fishing periods, and was not linked to calendar days. He said KRSA suggested to the Board of Fisheries that calendar days be used to measure the catch instead of the naturally occurring fishing periods defined by regulations.

"That idea on a calendar day was the accurate and correct call," Gease said.

"It was the fairest way to do deal with it."

Regnart said Fish and Game's efforts to manage the fisheries does not always make everyone happy.

"We're going to go out there and do what we think is best for the whole, based on management plans," Regnart said. "That creates friction sometimes between the state and user groups."

There was also an emergency order issued Tuesday that will limit the commercial drift fleet to Areas 3 and 4 in order for the fleet to focus on pink, chum and coho salmon, Shields said.

Logan Tuttle can be reached at