UPDATE: With weekend dipnetting on the Kenai River a bust and sockeye salmon returns badly lacking – the Saturday sonar count was a dismal 14,280 fish – the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has canceled scheduled openings of the commercial drift and setnet fisheries near the mouth of the river on Monday.
Noting that only 307,000 sockeye have escaped fishermen to make it into the Kenai to date, the emergency order closing the commercial fishery said that “on average, sockeye salmon passage into the Kenai River is 48 percent complete through July 22. Based upon this level of passage, the minimum Kenai River in-river goal of 900,000 fish will not be achieved. Therefore, closing the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet and Central District drift gillnet fisheries on Monday…is warranted.” Other parts of Cook Inlet will open for the regular 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. period.
The commercial sockeye catch to date is approximately 1.3 million, about 76 percent of the projected commercial harvest of 1.7 million.
Fishery managers remain hopeful there are fish still to come, which has happened on occasion in some past years. Dipnetters, meanwhile, are waiting on one good day. Dipnetting is at its peak on those days when 50,000 or more sockeye swarm the river. The best day so far this year saw a count of 30,486 on Tuesday.
MOUTH OF THE KENAI RIVER – With the tide falling Thursday morning and the mouth of this river narrowing as a result, the returning sockeye were concentrated just enough to make for decent dipnetting.
By the standards of the 2017 personal-use dipnet season so far, it was a good day. There were probably only 100 people fishing along a quarter mile of north shore beach, and everybody was catching fish.
Word of their success spread quickly. By midday the crowd swelled even as the fishing went to hell. By late in the day, a lot of empty-handed dipnetters were watching the heavily laden boats of Kenai commercial fishermen chug back into the mouth of the river headed for the processing plant upstream.
Their day’s catch was 141,259 sockeye, according to reports to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The catch brought the season’s commercial harvest to 1.28 million of a forecast commercial catch of 1.7 million.
Meanwhile, fewer than 265,000 sockeye – the lowest number of fish in a decade – had escaped the commercial and dipnet fisheries to pass a sonar counter on the lower river and continue on into the sport fishery upriver.
The gauntlet sockeyes run on their way to the spawning grounds is long, and by Friday state fisheries managers were beginning to get a little worried about it.
To date, this has been a fair year for commercial fishermen, a not-very-good year for everyone else wanting Kenai sockeye, and a tough year for the fish. Last year, there were 609,000 of them in-river by July 20. The year before, the number was 353,000.
The July 20 numbers track fishery management goals. The minimum in-river goal for 2016 was 1.1 million sockeye. The minimum for 2015 was 1 million sockeye. The minimum for this year – set at the directive of the state Board of Fisheries – is 900,000 sockeye.
With luck, commercial fisheries manager Pat Shields said on Friday, managers will reach it. There was no commercial fishing Friday. Shields said there would also be none over the weekend, and he was likely to close the regular commercial fishing period set for Monday.
A bountiful weekend?
With the last commercial fishing period ending at 7 p.m. on Thursday and commercial fishing closed on Friday, Saturday should have been a very good day to be dipnetting on the Kenai, but it wasn’t shaping up that way.
Thousands of dipnetters had Friday packed the Seward and Sterling highways on the 150-mile drive south from Anchorage and the Matansuka-Susitna Borough to fish what is by far Alaska’s most popular river for freezer-fillers, but not many of them appeared to be fishing Saturday.
Reports from the beach Saturday morning were that a lot of people had given up and pulled their nets because the fishing was so slow. The webcams the City of Kenai has set up to monitor the fishery reinforced that view.
At midday, the camera overlooking the north beach showed about 100 dipnetters fishing. One among their number would drag a fish to shore every couple minutes while the other 99 stood and waited. A catch rate of 30 fish per hour among 100 people would be pretty slow fishing.
That translates into three-tenths of a fish per fisherman per hour or about a fish per person every three hours. Most people lack the patience to stand in the 55 degree water of the Kenai for three hours to catch one fish.
At the Alaska Outdoor Journal on Facebook, this sort of fishing was labeled the “Saturday morning nightmare on the Kenai.” Journal founder Gary Barnes was calling for heads to roll.
“The Kenai sockeye run is 42 percent complete at this time based on normal timing and we are projected to end up a quarter of a million fish short of the minimum escapement goal of 900,000 the management plan mandates,” he wrote. “As of Friday’s 27K Kenai count, the run will end up at 691,000 fish.”
No reason to panic yet
Fisheries management, Shields observed on Friday, is “as much art as science.”
Sockeye hit Cook Inlet in force early this year. The state’s offshore test boat fishery spotted them coming, and the commercial fishery was put in position to catch them. The harvest of almost 1.3 million by the end of Thursday is a refection of a good number of sockeye early.
When the fish come back early, it is often an indication they are coming back in numbers larger than forecast. If that is the case, managers should easily reach the 900,000 goal, and dipnetters should seem some phenomenal fishing in the days ahead.
In that regard, it is worth going back to take a look at the return in 2007 – the last year there were so few fish in the river by July 20. What followed was a literal flood of sockeye.
Forty-four thousand passed the sonar on July 21, and from July 22 to July 29, there wasn’t a day the sonar count fell below 45,000 with a peak count of 86,000 on July 27. By the July 31 end of the dipnet season, the number of fish in-river had almost quadrupled from 215,000 on July 20 to 802,000 on July 31.
The eventual in-river count that year reached 1.23 million.
Given that any day that 50,000 sockeye, or anything close to that, swarm the river is guaranteed to make for great dipnetting, dipnetters had a week to die for from the 22nd to the 29th in 2007.
With fewer than 15,000 dipnetters fishing that year, the dipnet catch topped 291,000 for an average just shy of 20 fish per dipnetter. The catch last year was lower at 259,000 and given the almost 27,000 people fished, the average catch fell below 10 fish.
This year dipnetters might not be averaging even that. The best day for fishing so far saw only 30,486 sockeye past the sonar on July 18. They would have passed through the dipnet fishery a day earlier.
But that’s all history. What happens next is what counts, and the numbers could jump substantially in the days ahead because, as Barnes notes, the number of fish in-river is lagging well behind what Shields and other fishery managers want to see. They have no choice but to restrict the commercial fishery to try to get more fish in-river.
The only troubling fact is how slow the dipnet fishery today when managers were really expecting it to pick up.
Not as expected
“This weekend is a huge weekend,” Shields said Friday. “It’s a huge weekend down on the Kenai.”
He was expecting a lot of fish and a massive fishing effort – enough, he feared, for dipnetters to possibly catch one of every two fish coming back into the river.
That wasn’t happening. There simply weren’t enough nets in the water to produce that kind of catch.
All indications were the fishing was such that a lot of people gave up. Traffic was slow at the lower Kenai boat launch. There were a lot of people camping out on both the north and south beaches, but not so many fishing.
Jumping salmon in the river, a sign of large numbers of fish returning were few, but things can change fast on the Kenai.
“We’re kind of at a point at where we’re trying to decide” what’s what, Sheilds said Friday. “Our plan is to back off on the management plan and let a few more fish into the Kenai River.
“If the run’s a couple days late, it says we’re going to make our goals…we’ve had some years when we’ve been like this and we didn’t make the 900,000, and other years when we went over that.”
He was hoping for the over, not the under.
So, too, most dipnetters and anglers – not to mention tourism businesses – upstream. The tourism business these days is heavily dependent on good angling for sockeye. The fish attract anglers from all over the country.
The angling to date, given the comparatively small number of sockeye in the river, has not been good.