Between my column last Friday mentioning, what should have been a peak week of coho salmon sport fishing opportunities, and when this column will appear in print on Friday August 18, 2023 shortages of coho salmon migrating past weirs on two of Mat-Su Valley’s largest coho salmon sport fisheries have led to sweeping coho salmon restrictions starting August 12 and 14 followed by an additional sport harvest restriction and a coho salmon sport fishing harvest closure starting Thursday August 17.
Emergency Order 2-SS-2-55-23 prohibited the use of bait fishing at Little Susitna River from August 12 — September 30, 2023. This meant use of bait was only allowed for 6 days on Little Susitna River for all of 2023.
Emergency Order 2-SS-2-56-23 reduced the daily coho salmon limit in the entire Susitna River drainage to one fish — and further prohibited the use of bait in all flowing waters of the Susitna River drainage from August 14 —September 30, 2023.
Emergency Order 2-SS-2-59-23 Reduced the coho salmon bag and possession limit at Little Susitna River to one fish from Thursday August 17 — December 31, 2023.
Emergency Order 2-SS-2-60-23 closed Deshka River to sport coho salmon harvest from August 17 – September 30.
After the entire Susitna River drainage and Little Susitna River was closed to sport king salmon harvest for all of 2023, these additional sport coho salmon restrictions are particularly difficult for sport anglers to stomach. Ocean-run coho salmon are normally the most harvested fish species throughout Mat-Su area sport fisheries.
The dramatic reduction of sport fisheries for king and coho salmon, throughout the Mat-Su Valley, to a shadow of their former magnificence, glaringly illustrates change needed in the management of these two extremely economically important salmon species.
River Terminus Commercial Fisheries
Throughout Upper Cook Inlet nearly all salmon producing streams — and especially those with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) established salmon spawning escapement goals have a one-mile or larger closed waters radius around the stream terminus with saltwater. Several even have established markers or waypoints for closed and open waters. In Northern Cook Inlet, however, commercial salmon fishing may occur only 500 yards from the saltwater terminus of both Little Susitna River and Susitna River. Neither terminus has markers or way points defining waters open or closed to commercial fishing. Therefore salmon staging in these two stream terminus areas are considerably more vulnerable to commercial over harvest. In the case of Little Susitna River, where the sport fishery has been prohibited from using even a single salmon egg on a hook, and where the sport limit for coho salmon has been reduced to one fish daily, and further sport anglers must quit fishing for the remainder of the day after harvesting one coho salmon, it seems ridiculously unfair to allow a more liberal commercial harvest opportunity in close proximity to the stream mouth. Making matters worse, a commercial permit holder is presently allowed to harvest as many coho salmon as they can catch in three 200-foot long gill nets during each Northern District commercial fishing period — in close proximity to the Little Susitna River terminus. Is it realistic to expect the Little Susitna River coho salmon spawning escapement goal to be achieved under such a scenario — and especially during a year of twice-identified by ADF&G emergency order — low coho salmon abundance at Little Susitna River? Any and all ADF&G staff members should be ashamed to defend this commercial harvest opportunity or portray this scenario as a reasonable sharing of the Little Susitna River coho salmon conservation burden. Optics for this situation are terrible.
Too Liberal Commercial Regulations
Even with much less than full participation by commercial permit holders during each fishing period, commercial harvest opportunities are too liberal to meet all of the Northern District sockeye and coho salmon escapement goals without emergency restriction by ADF&G commercial staff. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Northern District commercial fishery has been restricted every year for the past two decades in efforts to achieve ADF&G established sockeye and or coho salmon escapement goals. In addition the Northern District Salmon Management Plan only specifies that the commercial fishery be managed based on the inseason abundance of Susitna River sockeye salmon. If ADF&G determines adequate sockeye are available to meet Susitna River drainage escapement needs, liberal commercial harvest may be allowed with little concern how coho salmon abundance will be affected. From commercial emergency orders I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with ADF&G managers that appears to be what happened this year. On a year with lower than average coho salmon abundance (like 2023) this practice is often devastating to most Alaska residents hoping to sport harvest a limited number of Mat-Su salmon, unless they happen to be one of the 100 or so Northern District commercial permit holders.
Archaic Harvest Strategy Benefits Few / Harms Many
On a year with a decent return of sockeye salmon, unleashing liberal Northern District commercial harvest opportunity certainly allows the 100 or less participating commercial permit holders to harvest even more sockeye and coho salmon, but since this liberalization most often occurs late in the sockeye run, and more near normal peak timing for Northern District saltwater coho salmon abundance, it often harms harvest opportunity for thousands of upstream users. Since commercial permit holders are first in line, with much larger and more efficient fishing gear, and since they are allowed to harvest salmon without limit during commercial periods, on years with larger salmon returns they can easily harvest more salmon without more liberal gear or openings. Therefore setting commercial regulations at a more realistic level that would allow all escapement goals to be met without commercial or inriver restrictions, most years, would allow many more Alaskans and visitors a better opportunity to harvest a reasonable portion of Northern Cook Inlet’s salmon bounty. During years with larger salmon returns upstream users would have a more realistic opportunity to share in that extra bounty as well. There are enough people wanting to participate in Northern Cook Inlet salmon harvest opportunities that Mat -Su inriver salmon returns should never be managed on the basis of allowing only the minimum spawning escapement number (or less) into a river(s).
I have written this column with the hope that we can move beyond the management practices that have failed too many Northern Cook Inlet residents on an ever occurring basis. With the salmon bounty that Northern Cook Inlet has produced in the past, and can produce in the future, Mat-Su and other Northern Cook Inlet residents should enjoy realistic salmon sport fishing harvest opportunities without being required to travel hundreds of miles to do so. Mat-Su Valley visitors should likewise have a realistic opportunity to stay an extra day and fish with a reasonable opportunity to harvest salmon throughout the entire Mat-Su Valley summer season.
Good Luck and Fish On!
Andy Couch is a member of the Matanuska – Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, however, views expressed in this column are his own.
***3 additional emergency orders were issued since this article was written: 1. Commercial fishing closed throughout the Northern District on Thursday August 17 from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. 2. Little Susitna River closed to coho salmon fishing starting at 12:01 am Saturday August 19 — September 30. 3. Jim Creek and additional Knik River waters down to within 100 yards of the confluence with Bodenburg Creek closed to all salmon fishing starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday August 19 — Sunday December 31, 2023.