Much To Sort Out Before Subsistence Gillnets Hit Kenai, Kasilof

A new federal subsistence fishery rule adds set gillnetting to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. State and federal biologists are concerned the new rule will hamper conservation efforts aimed at preserving king salmon and other fish species in the rivers. But the Ninilchik Traditional Council, which asked for the right to set gillnet, says it can fish responsibly.

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The Federal Subsistence board signed off on the proposal last week. And they did so despite objections from both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees subsistence use. The proposal was submitted by the Ninilchik Traditonal Council. Most of the concern is about the non-selective nature of gillnets.

“So when we talk about the conservation concerns that both agencies have, it’s not just the king salmon, it’s all the fisheries resources in the Kenai River,” said ADF&G management biologist Robert Begich. The recognized subsistence areas on the Kenai river are around the Russian River Falls, Moose Range Meadows and just south of Skilak Lake; all active habitat areas for several species.

“That area of the river up there, it’s only open to fishing with bait and multiple hooks for one month a year and 2011 was the last time king salmon were allowed to be harvested and we’ve been closing that area by emergency order since then. So, it’s a very tumultuous fishing method that kind of flies in the face of all the other regulatory things that are in place to benefit the fish resource,” Begich said.

“We want people to understand that we are 100 percent conservation-minded,” said Ivan Encelewski, Executive Director of the Ninilchik Traditional Council. He says the gillnets are simply another method of harvest added to what subsistence users are already allowed, including rod and reel, dipnets and fishwheels

“And I think one of the things that people don’t quite understand is that the feds, under this subsistence program, have so much leeway to either shut down or make emergency orders to close those fisheries. And as I noted in my testimony, the inseason federal manager has closed down the king harvest on subsistence the last two years. There’s absolutely no way that this fishery that would be implemented; one that we would implement it on our end that would create a conservation concern, we believe, or that wouldn’t have processes in place to maintain that conservation,” Encelewski said.

Subsistence users are allowed 4,000 sockeye and 1,000 king salmon. Barely a drop in the bucket relative to the overall sockeye return in Cook Inlet, but it’s a pretty large proportion of the king salmon return, which totaled fewer than 17,000 last year on the Kenai river. Enselewski says the push to allow the use of setnets is less about slaying fish and more about tradition.

“It’s definitely important, because it’s the actual traditional means of the community of Ninilchik, and that keeps in line with the culture and the tradition of our people, but it also allows for an opportunity for the community to work on subsistence harvest versus just the individual, so it keeps that connection to the history and the culture as well.”

There’s a lot to figure out before those nets hit the water, though. In the weeks and months ahead, subsistence users and Fish and Wildlife have to sort out whether the use of gillnets even fits into the already-established regulatory framework for the Kenai.  And there are more specific questions to answer on the Kasilof.

“I think for the Kasilof River, it will be working out  the details on an operational plan for fishing a specific time and area, so above the Tustumena boat launch during the month of July, within that framework, how do we provide an opportunity for qualified rural residents to harvest sockeye salmon with a gillnet,” said Jeff Anderson, Field Supervisor for the Kenai Fish and Wildlife office.

Ivan Encelewski thinks it can all come together, and in a way that doesn’t add to the management drama of two rivers that might already be too popular for their own good.

“We’ll see. I think we can do this responsibly and we’ll show people that this will be a good opportunity and a win-win for everyone.”