For the first time in years, king salmon are showing signs of making a stronger return to the vast wilderness surrounding Alaska’s urban heartland.
While Panhandle runs continue to struggle, kings to the north appear to be coming back in reasonable numbers. No records are being broken, but there are enough fish the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has liberalized fishing in two of the state’s most popular roadside king salmon drainages – the Kenai River south of Anchorage and tributaries to the Copper River east of the state’s largest city.
A near disaster had been forecast on the latter river, a big, muddy, glacial stream draining 26,500 square miles of Alaska near the Canadian border. A return of only 29,000 fish was expected, and with the spawning goal set at 24,000, the state imposed a host of restrictions on the fishery before it even began.
Sport fishing was closed. Subsistence fishermen were restricted to a seasonal limit of only two Chinook, the more common Lower 48 name for kings. And commercial fishermen faced major reductions in fishing time and closures of areas that have in the past produced the biggest king catches.
The latter didn’t seem to matter much. Commercial fishermen had caught more than 12,000 kings as of Friday. That was three times more than the 4,000 fish limit to which the state had hoped to hold the fishery, more than the catch for the entire 2016 season, and near equal or better than the season-long catch for seven of the last 10 years.
Managers were taking the strong harvest as an indicator the run was way bigger than expected.
Tough to measure
Exactly how many fish are in the river now is hard to know. Indications are that the in-river return might be on track for more than 30,000, but the Copper is so big and so muddy, it’s hard to know for certain.
There is a sonar in the lower river that counts the number of fish bound upstream, but it can’t tell a sockeye, average weight 5.5 pounds, from a king, average weight 20.5 pounds, or about four times bigger.
Fish and Game has in the past held to the view that about 95 percent of those fish are sockeye. That would put the present king return at 19,209, below what managers would like to see at the counter for this date with the run now sliding toward its end.
But the sonar counts comes with huge unknowns, and few percent difference in the ratio of Chinook to sockeye can spark big differences. If the percent of kings is increased to but 8 percent, there are suddenly almost 31,000 of the big fish in-river.
And a king salmon mark-recapture program in the lower river is indicating that might be the case. The program involves capturing kings in a fish wheel, tagging them and then recapturing fish upstream to arrive at an estimate of the percentage of fish caught in the first wheel.
To date, the lower wheel has caught nearly 2,816, and the formula for calculating run size based on mark-recapture would appear to put the return over 30,000 although the number shifts around day-to-day.
Whatever it is today, fishery managers have felt confident enough of the run to lift an earlier ban on kings in the popular, personal-use dipnet fishery near the tiny community of Chitina.
Beginning Monday, dipnetters will have a seasonal limit of one king. Restrictions on subsistence fishermen and anglers had already been relaxed. The sport fishery was opened and the subsistence limit bumped back up to five fish for the season on June 5.
The subsistence and dipnet fisheries are limited to Alaska residents only, but non-residents can and do take part in the sport fishery which has a seasonal limit of two Chinook total but only one from Tonsina, Klutina or Gulkana rivers.
Those are the Copper basins most popular rivers with anglers, though nowhere near as popular as the Kenai.
Because of its popularity, the Kenai has one of the best monitored salmon returns in the state, or more accurately one of the best monitored runs to a river across which it is impossible to place a weir that allows for a count of every individual fish.
As of June 15, a Kenai sonar – which can distinguish big fish from small fish – had counted 5,300 big fish upstream. That’s almost 1,000 more than for the early-Chinook run last year and more than three times the disaster of 2014 when only 2,400 fish came back during the entire season.
The Kenai gets two runs of kings. The world record Chinook – a 97-pound, 4-ounce fish – came from the early run. But historically the largest number of big fish – 50 pounds and over – are in the late run that starts in July and runs into August, although sport fishing ends on July 31.
Given the strength of the early return of first-run kings to the Kenai this year, fishery managers are now projecting a total return of about 8,000. That’s well above the upper end of a spawning goal of 3,900 to 6,600.
Given that, the state earlier this week loosened regulations to allow anglers to keep fish up to 46 inches in length. A fish of that size will usually weigh close to 40 pounds.
The size limit was previously 36 inches. The limit was intended to protect big, egg-laden spawners.
“This size limit increase to king salmon less than 46 inches continues to protect the majority of the age-seven fish while increasing harvest potential,” a Fish and Game statement noted.
The early king numbers appear to continue the rebuilding of a once-strong run that fell to just over 1,500 fish in 2013. Returns have grown every year since. Whether that means the trend will continue is hard to say.
Up, down, sideways
Elsewhere around the Southcentral region, returns are a mixed bag, which makes it hard to say whether the faltering Chinook runs of recent years are on the mend or not.
Southcentral is a vast area centered around Cook Inlet near the gut of the Gulf of Alaska. The region is home to about 60 percent of Alaska’s population of slightly less than 740,000 people.
Sport fishing is an important element in the local visitor industry. The king fishing had been good on the Kenai until the waters turned muddy earlier this week, but elsewhere it has been only so-so.
The Anchor River, a popular roadside stream on the lower Kenai Peninsula, had seen a return of 3,000 kings as of Friday. It was lagging behind 2016, which was a good year, and 2017, which was a banner year.
The Deshka River, a popular stream just off the Matanuska-Susitna Valley road system, would appear to be tracking the Anchor. The 5,800 kings upriver there as of Friday were significantly behind the returns for 2016 and 2015, and way behind the banner years of the early 2000s when the small, iron-colored stream regularly produced runs in excess of 35,000 fish.
Almost 60,000 came back in 2004. This year’s return looked headed for something more on the order of 15,000 to 20,000.
On the Little Susitna River, the most popular roadside king salmon fishery in the Mat-Su, it was still too early to tell anything. Fewer than 350 kings had passed the weir there as of Friday, a tiny fraction of the returns of 2015 and 2016. But the run sometimes doesn’t start to build until later in June.
To the east in of Anchorage in the Copper River basin, the Gulkana River – a Copper tributary and long the site of the region’s most popular sport fishery, the story is much the same as for the Little Su.
Only about 100 Chinook had passed the fish counting tower there as of Friday. That was better than the disaster of last year, when the entire Copper drainage fell far short of meeting its spawning goal of 24,000, but not nearly as good as the year before when the Gulkana ended up with a return of about 3,600 kings.
Runs of the latter size were the norm in the early 2000s. More than 6,000 kings returned to the river in 2002 when the fish-counting tower was installed to monitor a run already thought to be in serious decline. Anglers sometimes harvested almost that many kings per year in the 1990s.
In arguing for continuation of the counting tower in 2013, state fishery managers noted that “Gulkana River Chinook salmon are genetically distinct from other Copper River stocks and exhibit an early run-timing pattern. They comprise an average of 21 percent of the Copper River drainage Chinook salmon spawning population and over 29 percent of the Chinook salmon available to upper Copper River subsistence fisheries.
“On average, over 70 percent of the average (2002–2011) annual subsistence harvest of 2,710 Chinook salmon is harvested before 4 July. The Gulkana River Chinook salmon counting tower coupled with distribution estimates of spawning will provide the only method to assess the in-season progression of escapement for any individual Chinook salmon stock in the Copper River drainage.
“This in-season monitoring combined with anecdotal harvest data from the various
Upper Copper River fisheries is vital to managers when making decisions about the Copper River’s important subsistence, personal-use, commercial, and sport fisheries. The estimates of total escapement will be used to establish a (spawning escapement goal) SEG for Gulkana River Chinook salmon.”
That SEG has yet to be established, and as an indicator for the upper Copper River king return, the Gulkana was not looking nearly as rosy as other indicators on Friday. There have been previous years when twice as many fish have passed the tower by mid-June.
But, as on the Little Su, the picture is complicated. The Gulkana has had strong returns in years when the bulk of the run didn’t really begin to arrive until after the middle of June.
Alaska likes to pride itself on ownership of the best salmon management system in the world, but the reality is something else. Fishery managers often work with marginal tools for assessing run strength. They basically end up flying on a wing and a prayer.
Those tools are better in some places than others. On the Kenai, state managers have some back up in the form of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weirs on the Killey and Funny rivers, where about 80 percent of all early-run kings spawn. The weir data offers some in-season confirmation on how well the sonar is tracking.
On the Copper, managers won’t know how well they did in conserving the fish until full mark-recapture data is in hand along with a full Gulkana count and information from aerial surveys are complete on three other major spawning areas for Copper kings.
And by the time they get that information, it will be way too late to do anything to put more fish in-river if harvests have been too high.