- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - New rules to protect king salmon returning to Kenai Peninsula rivers unfairly target commercial fishermen, they said Wednesday after the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved the measures.

Jim Butler, a commercial set-net fisherman and a representative of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said the loss of fishing opportunity will not be equally shared with anglers.

“There has been nothing in the river that been changed except ‘not-bait,’” he told the Peninsula Clarion (https://bit.ly/1eYmgi5). “There’s been not one less motorboat day, not one less drift boat day, there has been no limitation on the number of hours the commercial guide industry fishes.”

The Fish Board, meeting in Anchorage, voted 6-1 in favor of “paired restrictions” for late-run king salmon returning in July. State fish managers will have the power to reduce both sport and commercial fishing in Cook Inlet when king salmon return numbers look low, the Anchorage Daily News (https://bit.ly/1eYmqWH) reported.

For example, river anglers in private boats or boats with guides could be prohibited from using bait. That would kick in restrictions on nets used by set-netters, the commercial fishermen who stretch gill nets perpendicular to ocean beaches near rivers to intercept returning salmon.

Set-netters target sockeye salmon but catch an estimated 13 percent of the returning kings.

Fish managers could also require in-river anglers to catch and release kings. Under the new rules, commercial set-net fishermen would then be limited to one 12-hour fishing period per week instead of two.

King salmon are a huge draw for the peninsula’s tourism industry, attracting anglers who support lodges, restaurants and guides. Sport fishing interests had pushed for the paired restrictions.

“We’re entering into some kind of uncharted territory in the returns,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “There’s no guarantee - look at the Yukon, that’s not returned - there’s no guarantee of future performance. If there’s not enough kings, nobody’s going to be fishing.”

Set-net fishermen said sport anglers are far more responsible for king salmon declines, but commercial fishermen are being unfairly punished. The new rules provide incentives for using shallower nets that could spare deep-swimming kings, but their effectiveness has not been adequately tested, said Jeff Berger, a Ninilchik commercial fisherman in a letter to the board. The nets are a huge expense to the fleet and the Kenai River could overload with sockeye salmon if too many get past gillnets, he said.

“This effort is clearly (an) effort to starve out commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and advance the goals of the individuals that initiated the ballot initiative to eliminate gillnetting,” wrote Berger, a manager with Copper River Seafoods.

Runs of king salmon have been low in recent years throughout most of the state. Ocean conditions, habitat damage, trawling and other factors are being studied as possible causes.

Board of Fisheries chairman Karl Johnstone, a retired Superior Court judge, called the changes fair.

“There’s no way we can satisfy everybody. I have not heard anybody tell me this is great. I’ve heard people say this is going to hurt us from both sides of the aisle,” Johnstone said. “It’s not our job to please people. It’s our job to protect the fish.”

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