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Sockeye Concerns Spark Two Proposals That Could Restrict Salmon Fishing Around Unalaska

Aug 18, 2016

Subsistence fishermen set a net at Morris Cove.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Unalaskans are worried about the sockeye salmon run at Front Beach — thanks to a growing number of nets and seemingly fewer fish.

That's why the Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee has proposed a new regulation aimed at conserving reds.

"Our motion is to submit an agenda change request to limit the number of sockeye taken from Front Beach with subsistence gear to no more than 10 per permit holder," said Secretary Jennifer Shockley at Tuesday's committee meeting.

That means: Of the 25 reds each permit holder is allowed to take each season, only 10 can come from Front Beach. At least, that'll be the rule if the Alaska Board of Fisheries accepts the proposal in October and adopts it at a later meeting.

And that's no sure thing.

The committee passed the measure 6-1 with one abstention, but only after a lengthy debate and heated public comments.

The problem is that no one really knows if Front Beach sockeye are being overfished. With no way to count reds, all of the evidence is anecdotal. And several committee members said they were reluctant to take action without an accurate count, including Chairman Frank Kelty.

"The answer is getting a weir," said Kelty. "Possibly even used weirs, just so we can start getting information about what's going on in these streams. Because right now, we're shooting in the dark."

And it's not just Front Beach. Committee members also expressed concern about the sockeye runs at Summer Bay and Morris Cove, which have similarly sparse population data.

They're submitting a second proposal to the Board of Fisheries to restrict sport fishing at those streams. If adopted, the measure would require sport fishermen to move at least 250 yards off the mouth at Summer Bay and Morris Cove before taking reds. It would also reduce the two-bag limit to one per day.

While the committee passed that proposal earlier this year, it was still a controversial topic at Tuesday's meeting.

Unalaska resident Mark Westphal said the restriction would hurt beach-bound fishermen like him.

"For someone who doesn't own a boat, that's my source of sockeye," said Westphal. "If I want one, that's where I have to go to get it. Or I have to go to the grocery store and pay $20-30."

Several committee members sympathized, but they said conservation is critical with Unalaska's increasing population, the growing number of sport fishermen, and a lack of run data.

For those same reasons, Shockley said local law enforcement has patrolled popular sport fishing spots this summer to better enforce existing regulations.

"Officers from the Unalaska Department of Public Safety have contacted about 300 people and issued around 20 citations — almost all of them in the Town Creek area for snagging in closed waters," said Shockley. "By and large, compliance out at Summer Bay and Morris Cove was really good."

Still, the will submit the two proposals on Thursday, and the group will meet again in October to see which requests advance with the Board of Fisheries.

In the meantime, Kelty said they're looking at options for funding weirs or other fish count systems for Unalaska's major streams.