The rains came to Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna rivers valley over the weekend. The water in local creeks and rivers rose. And the coho salmon, notorious for sprinting from the oceans to the mountains when the weather Gods signal, finally came.
Almost 2,000 rocketed through a weir on the Little Susitna River before water levels started to drop again on Tuesday.
The only problem was there weren’t enough. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials Wednesday confessed they doubted the river will make the minimum spawning goal of 10,100, and moved to restrict Cook Inlet commercial fisheries to protect the fish. The sport fishery had been limited earlier in the month.
“The Little Susitna River coho salmon sustainable escapement goal (SEG) is 10,100–17,700 fish. Recent daily weir counts remain below average,” an emergency order from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said. “As of Aug. 15, total passage through the Little Susitna weir of 5,799 coho salmon projects that the minimum SEG will not be achieved.”
The emergency order halved the normal, 12-hour opening for set gillnet fishermen in the area around the mouth of the Little Su and on Fire Island just off the coast from Anchorage. Those are the areas where the most Little Su coho are caught.
If the Little Su fails to meeting spawning goals this year, it will mark the second year in a row the river has been over-harvested.
The Cook Inlet commercial catch of coho now stands at almost 240,000 fish, but the few other spawning tributaries to the Susitna and Matanuska rivers tracked by state fishery managers seem well on their way to meeting coho spawning goals.
More than 3,000 coho swarmed the Deshka River weir during a high water event on Tuesday, and that major spawning tributary to the Susitna River is now more than 2,000 fish above its minimum goal of 10,200, but still far from the top of the SEG at 24,100.
Jim Creek, a tributary to the Knik River, is also doing well. Almost half of all the coho to return this year passed the weir on Monday to push the count over 700, which is well within the escapement goal range of 450 to 1,400.
Mat-Su Valley anglers and tourist businesses, however, remain unhappy with the way the Cook Inlet commercial fishery has been managed. Many Kenai River salmon anglers feel the same way.
In keeping with the wishes of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, state fisheries managers aggressively prosecuted commercial drift gillnet fisheries in the Inlet. As a result, few sockeye got into the Kenai until after July 23, and the return to the Deshka – one of the Valley’s most popular salmon streams – was held in check until early August.
By Board dictate, commercial fishery harvests are a priority in the Upper Inlet in July and early August. About 1,100 people own limited entry permits to commercial fish the area, but only about 1,000 per year fish.
To date, they’ve caught 1.8 million sockeye (red), 237,000 coho (silver) and 7,000 Chinook (king) salmon as part of a harvest total of 2.6 salmon. Rod and reel catches from around the region are not yet available, but tens of thousands of anglers annually catch about 400,000 sockeye and 150,000 coho.
“At this point in the season, even if coho salmon were to make a dramatic late push into Mat-Su Valley and other northern Cook Inlet streams, forgone sport harvest opportunities, caused by large commercial coho harvests, in late July and early August can not be overcome,” Little Su guided Andy Couch observed in the MatSu Frontiersman newspaper. “Summer visitor numbers are already in decline, and…the small economic boost from central district-wide drift gillnet coho salmon harvests in late July and early August pales in comparison to the huge economic loss and future economic losses for northern Cook Inlet businesses dependent upon healthy coho salmon sport fisheries.
“Will anyone in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) commercial division be held accountable for the history of such poor decisions?”
Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former commercial fisherman, is to meet with Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission on Tuesday to discuss management of the 2017 salmon fishery.