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Chignik fishermen applaud Board of Fish changes to Cape Igvak plan

Alex Hager/KDLG

In a major shift, the board voted to halve Kodiak's allocation of Chignik sockeye in Cape Igvak, shortened fishing time, and doubled the minimum harvest required to open fishing in the Igvak section.

The Cape Igvak fishery lies north of the Chignik communities and to the west of Kodiak, across the Shelikof Strait on the Alaska Peninsula.

“I would say the thing I am right now is optimistic,” said Benjamin Allen, a city council member in Chignik Bay who has been fishing there for two decades.

After almost five days of contentious testimony at the meeting in Kodiak last week, the board voted 4-1 to approve proposals to change the Cape Igvak management plan, doubling Chignik’s allocation for the first run. That means the fleet has to harvest 600,000 fish by July 5 before Igvak opens to Kodiak’s fleet. It also halved Kodiak fishermen’s allocation of the sockeye catch — from 15% to 7.5% — and it shortened the fishing period in Igvak by 20 days, closing it on July 5 instead of July 25.

Allen said the Cape Igvak plan, which was put in place in 1978,  did have safeguards — for the past two years, the Kodiak fleet didn’t fish in Cape Igvak at all due to Chignik’s low returns. But Allen said the recent changes ensure that Chignik will benefit when the sockeye salmon do come back.

“In Chignik none of us blamed Igvak for the problems that exist there,” he said. “But now that there’s such a low level of run, we need those fish to be returning. And so without them we’re never going to economically stabilize.”

Credit ADF&G

Chignik had a devastating year in 2018. Enough salmon escaped in 2019 to meet the state's goal, but the run was still below the ten-year average; only 345,900 fish returned in the early run, and 336,100 sockeye returned in the late run. For many fishermen, the board's vote on Igvak was a long time coming. 

"Well, I figured it's about time," said Hank Brandel, who has fished in Chignik since 1966. "We've been fighting to get those allocations reduced. We were trying to get it where they would have to fish off of our catch rather than off our predictions." 

Hank's son, Cory, grew up in Chignik Lagoon, and now lives in Kodiak. He also said the change is long overdue.  

"We don't have a first run no more. It's getting pretty bad. I mean, it's not sustainable no more," he said. 

Now, Brandel says, the board needs to restrict fishing effort in Area M as well, which many critics see as an intercept fishery, where sockeye traveling through are harvested before they can reach fisheries closer to their spawning grounds. 

Chignik fishermen leveled a similar critique against Cape Igvak. In 1969, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted a tagging study, showing that Cape Igvak fish were mainly bound for Chignik. 

"Back then, predominantly those fish were captured in Chignik River, or the watershed, or the Chignik Management Area," said Birch Foster, a biologist with Fish and Game. "And so the thought was that a large percentage — 80, 90% — of the fish caught at Cape Igvak during those dates they looked at, which were like late June and early July, were Chignik-bound."

More recently, two years of genetic samples at Igvak, from 2015 and 2016, showed a more diverse stock composition.

"It was kind of a mixed bag of fish over in Cape Igvak, even though it was a limited number of years and times. But there was Chignik, there was Kodiak, there was Cook Inlet, there was Prince William Sound. Those were the four major contributors over there," Foster said.

At the meeting, Kodiak fishermen argued that the longstanding management plan worked — and that the proposed changes would hurt Kodiak’s economy. The Kodiak Salmon Work Group told KMXT that the loss from the changes to the Cook Inlet and Cape Igvak plans would total between $2 and $3 million annually.

Some testified that the downturn of Chignik’s run in recent years is due to environmental factors, and not Kodiak's fishing effort. Matt Keplinger has fished in Kodiak for 40 years and now works as a fleet manager for a Bristol Bay processor. In his testimony at the meeting, he said the changes were unfounded.

“Cape Igvak fishery is not impacting escapement into Chignik,” he said. “On what basis will you reduce Kodiak’s fishing opportunities? What is the justification for this debacle?”

Lorena Skonberg, a member of the Ouzinkie Native Corporation, said in her testimony that small communities like Ouzinkie relied on the management plan to keep participation viable for local fishermen.

"We know that if you close or restrict these areas, it will put another 30 or 50 boats in the Ouzinkie area and harm our fishermen," she said.

In the background of this debate was a letter Kodiak Representative Louise Stutes sent to the Board of Fish. In it, Stutes called on the board members not to exercise predetermined judgement during the meeting — that is, not to decide how they were going to vote before hearing the public testimony and presentations from state bodies. She also encouraged them to reconnect with local stakeholders. The board members did not take kindly to the implication that they weren't giving all parties due consideration. 

Märit Carlson-Van Dort of Anchorage called it an "affront to the service, dedication and integrity" of the board. Israel Payton of Wasilla stressed the personal toll of these meetings. 

"I put my eyeballs on every single piece of document that's put forward," he said. "And that's time away from my family — my wife and daughter. And it affects them greatly. It's a strain on our marriage and relationship. And to be accused of coming in here with a closed mind and not looking at this is a disgrace." 

Stutes told KMXT in an interview after the meeting that she had heard comments by board members that indicated they had decided how they were going to act before they arrived.

Meanwhile, Chignik's forecast is not promising this year; Fish and Game estimates that around half a million sockeye will return in the early run. That's the point estimate; the forecast ranges from 226,000 to 1.1 million fish. But since the harvest is expected to be below 600,000, the department doesn't anticipate opening Cape Igvak to fishing in 2020. 

Additional reporting by KMXT's Kavitha George. 

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.