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07-30-2007, 11:54 AM
July 29, 2007

By John R. Moses/Frontiersman

MAT-SU - The Mat-Su Borough manager, fishing guides and an elected official are among those urging emergency intervention by the state to close a swath of the Cook Inlet to a level of commercial harvesting they say will destroy Mat-Su's personal and sport fishing prospects for this season.

Extremely low fish counts mean economic disaster for the sport fishing industry and bring extreme personal hardship for Mat-Su residents who depend on sockeye and coho salmon harvests to survive the winter unless something is done soon, they say.

Borough manager John Duffy has asked the state to close the Upper Cook Inlet's central district to commercial netters, something that had been done for the past three years.

“We believe that any time the drift fleet is allowed to fish south of the Blanchard line, especially at this time of year, the fish bound for the northern district get intercepted,” Duffy says in a prepared statement. “It would be prudent to first allow the northern district to reach its escapement goals and then allow commercial fishing to occur, not before.”

Duffy has contacted Gov. Sarah Palin's office.
Biologist sees strong

coho season

Access to those waters is controlled by the Alaska Division of Fisheries, and that department does not share the Borough's concerns.

“It's kind of early to declare disaster in July for coho,” Cook Inlet Area Management Biologist Jeff Fox said.

Coho don't usually start running in the Deshka River until early August, Fox said. Although last year's returns were a record, two years ago on July 30 the count there was zero.

“You can't have a record run every year, but this year actually looks very strong for coho,” Fox said. “We'll see.”

As for the Borough's concerns and warnings, Fox said, “I guess they have a different perspective than us.”

Management restrictions on the fleets have been taking place, and the state won't know how well it did until after the season ends, Fox said, adding, “It's the nature of the beast.”

Good decisions or bad, local officials are worried.

On Tuesday, fewer than 100 cohos came across the weir at the Deshka River. Fewer than 600 sockeyes crossed at Fish Creek the same day.

“If this isn't addressed in a matter of days, the commercial fleet may reduce the number of fish escaping into the Susitna drainage to a level that will be devastating for Mat-Su families who rely on salmon for their table and to the guiding and fishing-related tourism industries in the area as well,” Borough Assemblymember Tom Kluberton said.

Kluberton chairs Borough mayor Curt Menard's Blue Ribbon Sportsmen's Committee, a panel revived last year to give the angling community a voice following years of low fish counts.

A member of that committee said state fishery managers are suffering from a case of apathy. Committee member Bruce Knowles said a closure of the northern section on Thursday was “like closing the gate after the cows are gone.”

Failure by the state to close those disputed waters allowed fishing fleets to harvest 400,000 sockeye salmon near Kaligan Island, he said.

“They've been doing this long enough to know when our fish are going through,” Knowles said.

Knowles doesn't dispute the state's July 30, 2005, fish count on the Deshka, but said that count was low because that year the waters were very low. Last year, with no commercial fishing in the central district, the fish were more than plentiful.

Knowles on Friday took State Rep. Mark Neuman for a first-hand look at the rivers. He said Valley legislators have been helpful in securing money for studies and overall in supporting sport fishermen.

State policies hit home

While the state's scientists analyze data and gauge the effect of management decisions, small business owners who depend on the tourism dollars fishing brings to the Valley and beyond make their forecasts based on past experience and the number of fish their charter customers, restaurant patrons or lodgers catch.

Fewer fish biting means an economic bite to charter company owners like Robert Meals of Tri-Rivers Charters, their families and the staffs they employ in places like Talkeetna. Last year saw a stunning number of silvers returning to local rivers because the nets were out of the water and the waters were - in some cases - too high. Silvers were seen swimming on Beaver Road in East Talkeetna during last August's floods.

“I've never seen silvers as early as they were last year,” Meals said.

For years the area had seen, by his estimate, 10 percent of the fish that would have come up river from the Cook Inlet had it not been for the nets.

“Last year the number of fish we had was tenfold,” he said. “We get pretty well what is left over - what escapes the net.”

Meals said that's a very uneven distribution of fish, particularly when the economic value of the fish is greater in the Valley to charter operators. Meals charges $155 for a charter, and with a two-bag limit on silvers that puts the value of the fish to the customer at $75 per fish, whether it's a 12-pounder or a 20-pounder.

Netters sell their products to commercial fish buyers at between 40 cents and 80-cents-per-pound.

Contact John R. Moses at 3522-2270 or john.moses@frontiersman.com.