This is a developing story
With almost 50,000 sockeye salmon hitting the Kenai River on Monday and another 60,000 going upriver on Tuesday, biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are expressing optimism a struggling return of one of the state’s most prized fishes can meet spawning goals.
Kenai sockeye escapements through commercial and personal-use nets at the mouth of the river, however, continue to lag.
Because of that, fishery managers closed the regularly scheduled Thursday fishing period for commercial gillnetters working near the mouth of the river. It is the second such closure this week.
A personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river remains open, which has angered some commercial fishermen. And Anchorage’s KTUU-TV caused a bit of a stir on Tuesday when it briefly reported that state officials were meeting to “discuss (the) possibility of closing the Kenai River to sport fishing later this week.”
The story was quickly updated on the station’s website, however, and the headline changed to say “Fish and Game to keep the Kenai River open for sport fishing, for now.”
Fisheries managers admit they are nervous about the run, however, and did consider closing the popular dipnet fishery in the lower river.
They defend the continuation of the dipnet fishery on the basis of its ineffciency. Even when thousands of people show up on Kenai beaches and in boats below the Kenai bridge to drag five-foot nets through the water, they can catch only about 20 percent of any days run of sockeye, according to state estimates.
At a run-strength of 50,000 sockeye, the daily catch would be about 10,000. A week of 50,000 returns could conceivably produce a catch of 70,000. More fish than that die in a bad day in the commercial fishery.
And there have been no 50,000 fish days this year at a sonar counter on the river, though it is almost certain that 50,000 or more hit the Kenai on Monday when the sonar count hit 48,000.
Two days earlier, it was at 14,000. Dipnetting harvests plummet when there are so few fish in the river, but even if they remained at 20 percent, the daily catch would drop to 2,800 for the day or 19,600 for a week.
The dipnet fishery closes on July 31, and state officials are continuing to closely monitor salmon escapement into the Kenai. The next scheduled commercial fishing period is Monday. If Kenai escapements between now and then don’t stay in the range of 50,000 fish per day, it is expected both that fishing period and the personal-use fishery could be closed.
Still in doubt is the fate of the in-river, rod-and-reel fishery that helps support a booming tourism business on the Kenai Peninsula. Non-residents are not allowed to dipnet. They can only legally catch salmon with hook and line.
Schools of tourists
The in-river goal of 900,000 salmon past a sonar counter a couple miles below the Soldotna bridge on the Sterling Highway is calculated to contain 200,000 fish for harvest in the upriver hook-and-line fisheries.
The people who come to catch those fish are what keep the parking lot of the Soldotna Fred Meyer and nearby campgrounds packed full with motorhomes in late July and early August. If the fish don’t show, they tend to leave.
Ray Beamesderfer of Fish Science Solutions, a consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, on Tuesday projected an escapement of 620,000 past the sonar if the Kenai run were to follow historic patterns and fishing were continue as normal. He projected a run of more than 1 million in-river if the run timing was late as in 2014 and 2015.
All of that, however, was prefaced on normal fishing. The Thursday closure of the commercial fishery alters the normal.
State fisheries managers could have gambled on a late run and turned the commercial fleet loose, but decided not to do so. The commercial season, unlike the dipnet season, runs into August, and commercial fishermen – who’ve already caught 1.3 million of a preseason forecast harvest of 1.7 million sockeye – will have a chance for other opportunities if the fish show.
Tom Vania, the regional sport fish supervisor, said this morning he is hopeful that with the commercial nets out of the water Kenai sockeye run will continue to swarm into the river with the strength of Monday. If that’s the case, he expects the in-river fisheries to continue as normal.
But, if not, anglers could expect serious reductions in bag limits.