AK - Court case is final hope for Cook Inlet driftnet fishermen facing federal restrictions
A late-season bumper run of sockeye salmon has pushed the Kenai River to its highest escapement in more than a decade. Unfortunately for the commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, they have had to watch many of them go by.
Over the course of the season, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists upgraded the estimate for the run’s escapement multiple times, upping the in-river bag limits for the sport fishery and opening some additional time for the drift gillnet fleet.
With the setnet fleet out of the water after July 20 because of poor king salmon returns to the Kenai, controlling sockeye escapements to the Kenai and Kasilof fell on the drift fleet and on the in-river dipnet and sport fisheries. Both rivers are ending their seasons significantly greater than the upper end of their escapement goals.
Fish and Game is projecting a final escapement in the Kasilof of 519,000 sockeyecompared to the top end of the escapement goal of 320,000; the sustainable escapement goal for the Kenai River has a top end of 1.3 million and ADFG is projecting an in-river run of about 2.4 million sockeye.
Unless something changes, the drift fleet is likely to lose a major chunk of their fishing area at the end of this year, too.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently working its way through the regulations review process for a new fishery management plan amendment that will close the federal waters of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing. That section, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ, covers the section of Cook Inlet that’s three nautical miles and farther offshore; drifters typically harvest half or more of their salmon from there during the season.
“For most of the fleet, the EEZ is the preferred area for fishing,” said Erik Huebsch, a drifter and vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Without access to the EEZ, the drift fleet cannot harvest enough salmon to meet expenses and cannot afford to operate.