With Alaska’s early run of Kenai River king salmon on life support, the interests groups whose livelihoods and passions depend on the fish this week came to an agreement on a plan they hope will bring the fish back.
Sometimes things get a lot easier when there is little or nothing left to lose.
Once the early-run kings drove the annual start of Kenai sport fisheries. Nearly 8,000 of the fish were estimated to have been caught in May and June of 1985 – about the same number as were harvested that year in the popular late-run king fishery of July
Another 8,000 or so of the early run fish escaped anglers in 1985 to reach the spawning grounds. The offspring of those fish and others for decades helped support a thriving tourism business that ran from the middle of May through the end of July.
The early-season business faded away as the fish faded away. Only an estimated 5,800 early-run kings returned to the Kenai in 2014. The May-June fishery was closed, and still the return barely topped the minimum spawning goal of 5,300.
Things didn’t get much better the next year. The return crept above the 6,000 fish mark, but not by much. And again there was no fishery.
Almost 9,900 early-run kings made it back last year, a major improvement in numbers. But they weren’t the kings of old.
“….Small male Chinook Salmon continue to dominate, comprising 46% of the run,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported from a fish counting weir it had installed on the Killey River, a prime Kenai spawning-tributary for early-run fish.
The average male fish measured only about 30 inches in length, the average female only about three feet. An average 30-inch king is estimated to weigh only about 11 pounds, a far cry from what anyone thinks of when the words “Kenai king” are uttered.
Kings five-times that size and larger, in some cases much larger, are what made famous the grey, glacial river that flows through the heart of the Kenai Peninsula south of Alaska’s largest city. On May 17, 1985, the late Les Anderson, a Soldotna automobile dealer, dragged a 97-pound, 4-ounce early-run king out of the river.
The then 68-year-old angler established a world record that stands to this day. It eventually earned him a place in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Anderson died in 2003. He did not live long enough to see the early run go bust.
Bringing them back
With dreams of once again seeing a lot of big fish in the river, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai River Professional Guides Association and the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition – three groups that don’t often agree on much – this year agreed on a pitch to the Alaska Board of Fisheries that would provide more protection for early-run king spawning areas and direct harvest away from larger, egg-bearing female salmon.
Salmon over about 34-inches in length – a fish of about 20 pounds – will be protected from anglers unless the Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects an early-run return over what is now an upper escapement (spawning) goal of 6,600 big fish.
The new goal reflects the problem of small fish. The old, early-run escapement goal was 5,300 to 9,000 fish, but with 40 to 50 percent of the return coming back as small, male kings just meeting escapements was misleading.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that at the Funny River weir in 2014 only 24 percent of the fish were females. Most were under-sized males. The Funny and the Killey are the major early-run spawning tributaries of the Kenai. The lack of females, especially big females with large loads of eggs, threatened the viability of future runs.
So the KRSA, the KRPGA and the KAFC put their heads together to try to fix the problem.
“There’s lot’s to be liked about the early-run plan starting out with the fact that it is a rebuilding plan that by design leaves a fair amount of harvest opportunity on the table,” said Kevin Delaney, a former director of the state Division of Sport Fisheries now working as a consultant to KSRA. “KRSA, the guides and KAFC all like the plan, (but) the ADFG thinks that we take away too much harvest potential and may face a day when we go over the goal. Not much of a worry to me.”
Despite from objections from the state agency, the Board of Fisheries, which sets regulations, approved the plan.
Getting the interest groups involved here to agree on a plan is a bit of a breakthrough given their past disagreements and sometimes less than friendly interactions.
The guides association is a group of businessmen – the commercial fishery of Alaska’s future though not treated with any of the deference given the commercial fishery of the day. The Kenai Fishermen’s Coalition is a group that believes the Kenai Peninsula would be a better place if Alaska could just go back to the 1960s when the Anchorage Metropolitan Area with today’s population of about 400,000 people was so small it didn’t exist as a statistical entity.
And the Kenai Sportfishing Association is a conservation organization that a lot of people like to hate because it was started and backed by wealthy patrons and advocates for increased sport-fishing opportunities on the Peninsula, an idea anathema to the area’s powerful commercial fishing interests and many members of the Fishermen’s coalition who’d just like to see visitors – be they from the aforementioned Anchorage Metropolitan Area or Outside – stay the hell home.
The Kenai is each summer invaded by tens of thousands of people looking to catch salmon. Some of them hire guides. The coalition does not like guides. It bills itself as the “voice for private anglers,” but it’s more the voice for Kenai-centric interests. It’s board is composed of nine Kenai residents and Vince Pennino, an Anchorage man with family living in Soldotna, a central Kenai city.
The animosity the coalition holds to the Kenai Sportfishing Association is hard to understate. Dwight Kramer in 2015 wrote a commentary for the Alaska Journal of Commerce in which he suggested the sport fishing group be run off the Kenai. Kramer was at the time the chairman of the coalition.
He accused the sportfishing group of being “a guide industry lobbying organization that has a single goal of eliminating commercial fishing in Cook Inlet so that the tourism and guide industries can prosper and they don’t care who they hurt along the way, whether it is a distinguished and well-respected local candidate for the (Fish) board or whether it is struggling commercial fishing families, the commercial fishing industry and associated local jobs or whether it is mom and pop private anglers that just want to spend an enjoyable day out fishing.
“None of this matters to them if they perceive someone is not supportive of their agenda. Their involvement in the Ban Setnet Initiative, along with another Bob Penney sister organization, is another prime example of their allocative greed at the ultimate expense of some of our neighbors and friends.”
The annual sport harvest of all species of Kenai River salmon is less than 500,000 fish. The commercial harvest of salmon in Cook Inlet last year totaled 3.5 million, and it was considered a not so good year.