No kings


Shan Fegley Johnson with a Yentna king salmon/Northwoods Lodge photo

Snow and ice still cover the tributaries of the Susitna River basin, but already the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is talking about closing the Chinook salmon fishery for the 2018 season.

The agency’s fear for the drainages of both the Susitna and Little Susitna mirrors the 2017 fear for the 24,000-square-mile Copper River basin : No king salmon.

In the case of the Copper last year, the state was faced with a scientifically calculated Chinook forecast calling for the return of 29,000 of the fish – only 5,000 more than were needed for spawning in streams located behind a gauntlet of commercial, subsistence, personal-use dipnet, and rod-and-reel fisheries.

The agency has no forecast for the Susitna drainage and is operating on a gut feeling the run this year could be even worse than the run last year when the Little Susitna barely met its minimum spawning goal and the Deshka River fell more than 1,500 fish short.

The Little Su and the Deshka are the most popular king salmon rivers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage. The Little Su was 425 fish above its goal of 2,100 Chinook last year. The Deshka count of 11,356 missed the 13,000 fish goal.

A tiny commercial setnet fishery for kings around the mouth of the Susitna reported a catch of 2,121 Chinook. How many of those fish were bound for the Deshka is anyone’s guess.

The commercial fishery was established in 1985 when Susitna-Yentna river Chinook runs were far in surplus of spawning needs.

Anglers in the Mat-Su Valley at that time made a deal with commercial fishermen to support the new set-gillnet fishery with the understanding that if runs weakened in the future, or if the sport fishery expanded to the point where it could harvest the entire surplus of kings, the new commercial fishery would be closed.

The harvestable surplus in the sport fishery ran out years ago, but Fish and Game officials and the state Board of Fisheries then argued they needed the setnet fishery to remain in place as a tool to assess the strength of Chinook returns to the Susitna. 

Now, said Valley fishing guide Andy Couch, the state is getting ready to close the commercial fishery along with all of the sport king fisheries in the Susitna drainage and eliminate any means of in-season assessment of run strength.

No comment

Sport fisheries director Tom Brookover was not returning phone messages on Friday, though his recording said he was somewhere in the Fish and Game building.

Couch said he, Ben Allen of Miller’s Riverboat Service, and Chad Lipse of Lipservice Fishing Charters met with Brookover and Cotten last week, and were told to expect “all king salmon commercial and sport fisheries in northern Cook Inlet” to be closed, except for hatchery-supported fisheries in Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage and at the Eklutna power plant trailrace along the Matanuska River.

The “bottom line was Commissioner Cotten could not see having a Deshka River king salmon fishery of any kind in light of the Department’s projection that the Deshka river king salmon return may not have enough king salmon to meet the minimum escapement goal range,” Couch messaged.

Cotten is a 70-year-old, former commercial who sometimes seems clueless as to sport-fishing issues. In a discussion last August, he couldn’t seem to understand why Valley anglers were upset about a big harvest of silver salmon in Cook Inlet followed by a ban on bait in the Little Susitna upstream from that catch because of very weak early return of silvers to that stream.

Cotten said he’d been running his boat up the rivers at the head of Turnagain Arm and finding plenty of silver salmon to catch. He didn’t seem to grasp that most Valley angers are roadside fishermen lacking expensive equipment to get to the fish, or that it’s a 90-mile drive from Wasilla to the head of the Arm or more for someone with a cabin in the Willow area looking to fish the creek of the same name once a prime location for silver salmon.


Couch said Cotten and Brookover did indicate that if they closed the Chinook season, as they apparently intend to do, they might reopen it later if they decided there were enough king salmon, but how exactly that determination would be made is unclear.

The two fishery managers “did not provide any specifics on what would be used to evaluate Susitna River drainage king salmon escapement or at what level of escapement the Department would deem appropriate to reopen which Susitna River drainage king salmon fisheries,” Couch said.

“The Department’s discussed management seems to be far from what could be described as a consistent and predictable sport fishery.   Such management would make it extremely difficult for anglers and businesses to plan any king salmon fishing ahead of time — kind of a radical departure from what the Department has been doing.”

Until last year, when the agency imposed a blanket ban on all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper River basin because of fears of a disastrous return that turned out to be fairly healthy, state policy had been to open sport fisheries with tight restrictions – bait bans and/or catch-and-release only – if runs were thought to be weak.

That, as Couch noted, provided at least some opportunity for anglers and some gage on how many fish were returning. Crappy fishing, even if linked in part to a ban on the use of bait, usually indicates a weak return of salmon, whereas a lot of  people hooking into fish usually indicates the opposite.

“Many anglers and businesses have clued into the past pattern and scheduled their trips earlier in the season for more predictable king salmon fishing/harvest opportunity,” Couch added.

Not only will guides and fishing business now have to start notifying clients who booked early that fishing seasons have closed – if the state ever gets around to officially announcing the closure – they’ll be stymied as to what to tell people about later fishing opportunities.

It’s hard to book business for a fishery with no known opening date and possibly no opening date.

Copper River take two

The situation is shaping up almost exactly like that in the Copper Basin last year, although in that case Fish and Game had at least provided some certainty by this date.

The agency on March 6, 2017 announced “all king salmon sport fisheries in the Upper Copper River drainage will be closed, this includes catch-and-release fishing;” the harvest of kings in the personal-use dipnet fishery would be prohibited; subsistence fishermen would be limited to two king salmon per seasons despite state and federal laws saying they are entitled to a harvest priority; and the Cordova-based commercial fishery would be sharply restricted in an effort to maximize the early season catch of sockeye salmon and minimize the catch of kings.

Outrage followed. Struggling tourism businesses in Glennallen, Copper Center and along the Richardson Highway, and personal-use fishermen from Fairbanks petitioned Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten for a review of the management plan.

They argued that instead of getting a fair share of the harvest they were getting no share of the harvest. Cotten told them to go fish.

Commercial fishermen argued the forecast had to be faulty, and accused Fish and Game of trying to amp up a sport-commercial fish war though there was never any evidence to support that theory.

Emotions only heightened after early commercial catches came in bigger than anticipated while upstream sport and personal-use fisheries remained closed. 

The situation didn’t begin to settle down until it started to become clear that the forecast – and forecasting salmon returns is a decidedly difficult business – was badly wrong.

By the start of June, Fish and Game was backpedaling on the forecast and opening king fisheries throughout the drainage, including the sport fisheries. 

By the end of the fishing season, the anticipated return of only 29,000 Chinook mushroomed to closer to 45,000 to 48,000 with some 32,000 to 35,000 making it into the river and the rest caught by Cordova-based commercial fishermen.

The official commercial catch of 13,100 fell below the 10-year harvest average of 15,400, but astronomical prices – fueled in large part by that early forecast predicting prized Copper River kings would be a rare commodity – made up for some of the shortfall in the catch.

Who knows

Since there has been no official word yet on the Cook Inlet king fishery, it remains to be seen what actually happens there, but Couch was not optimistic.

Cotten and Brookover, he said, “felt that Susitna River drainage king salmon stocks upstream of Deshka River were in worse shape than the Deshka stock and should also be closed.
“I did not get justification for a complete closure to king salmon fishing on the Yentna River drainage, other than the fact that no king salmon escapement goals were attained on the Yentna drainage last year.”
Only a couple Yentna tributaries have escapement goals. Lake Creek has a spawning escapement goal of 2,500 to 7,100 Chinook. The Talachultina River has a goal of 2,200 to 5,000. And Peters Creek has a goal of 1,000 to 2,600.
None of those streams are well monitored. Salmon returns are judged by a single, post-season aerial survey. Such counts provide only ballpark estimates. A state study which compared aerial and weir counts on the Theodore and Lewis rivers on the west side of Cook Inlet in 2012 and 2013 found the aerial surveys there under-counting Chinook by 22 to 63 percent.
The data on Yentna is clearly not good, but even where it is better, Couch said, the state appears determined to close sport fisheries.
“I asked about the Little Susitna River fishery which met goal last year and has met goal the vast majority of years in the past 35 years,” he said. “Commissioner Cotten said the department would evaluate further if king salmon fishing opportunity might be provided at that location.”
Couch added that the truly “disturbing part of the discussion…was that the Department had up until yesterday provided no public indication that (it) was considering closing the entire Susitna River drainage king salmon sport fishery.
“Even the Department’s projection for the Deshka River king salmon return has been kept under wraps, and remains under wraps.”
Why is it, Couch wondered, that forecasts for commercial sockeye salmon returns for Cook Inlet are “made available in November with a management plan available for the commercial fishery letting all commercial participants know how their season will start, while sport fisheries wait until an unspecified and often differing release dates.”
Brookover, he said, promised to look into that.
The sockeye forecasts are based on based on scientific models. TheSusitna King forecasts are more calculated guesses.
“At this point , (it’s) a fine mess indeed,” Couch said.
Still, two months remain until the first of the king salmon start nosing back into Cook Inlet streams,which means there is plenty of time to make it more of a mess or less.





14 replies »

    • Thomas,
      That story U link to says:
      “Balcomb points to overfishing, habitat loss and salmon hatcheries that have diluted the gene pool of wild Chinooks.”
      The question is, if the “genes” are different and the fish behave differently, then are we seeing a loss of species in the old Kings?
      Will the new species never spend more than a few years in the ocean?
      Are the new Kings a “Hybrid” from years of breeding with hatchery fish?

    • Thanks for posting, Thomas. Glad to see you read. It’s an interesting link even if it’s hard to tell if the photo is with little people or not, and even though there is no evidence that killer whales are cropping off the big kings. There could easily be a shift in available prey that means those older fish just don’t get the enough calories to grow bit in their latter years. Sort of a Piscean, counter version of what happened with the people of Japan after their diet improved:
      And the “P.s.” is a nice touch, the signature mark of a Cook Inlet commercial driftnetter fishermen. Anyone who reports objectively on that oversubscribed fishery can be expected to be called silly names. Sad, but then no one can do anything about it but you.

  1. No subsistence fishery in the MatSu therefore no priority. I.e. they don’t have to close the commercial fishery so they won’t. Also recall in the Copper River fishery the targeted commercial fishery is sockeye. All king salmon are bycatch. Upper Cook Inlet commercial is for kings. Funny how that works. The department has had about 40 years to look at predicting these returns but always have to have a crisis to take any action. Always need more money even though the commercial fish division gets over $30 million in general funds.

    Sent from my iPad


    Here is an article that relates to overall king salmon size that is of interest to me. I’ve been looking into this in Southeast and have learned that there has been a difference in 3 and 4 ocean kings over the last while (information from troll fleet).
    Both 3 and 4 ocean fish have been returning in smaller numbers for the last 25 (or so) years, however the 3 ocean fish had held their own previously from early 80s but those 4 ocean fish had already started their decline from those early 80s. Something (or someone) has been targeting those 4 ocean fish from at least early 80s.
    Obviously this is a complex issue but I suspect our state biologists will eventually get a handle on it. We can muddy the water a bit by claiming 5-6 species of king salmon once existed and that jack salmon are replacing our old 60 lb king salmon but that is just wasting all of our time IMO. I suggest Steve contact a state biologist. Heheh!

  3. During the crash in the late 80’s, when permits were cheap, I suggested to F&G that the state buy and retire some set net and drift net permits. That could have made a difference in the long term for the upper Cook Inlet fishery.

  4. The state biologists are as useless as Walker’s appointed commissioners…
    Alaskans will need to find an answer to dealing with the Comm Fish Mob…
    Fish Wars were a part of life in Washington and Oregon years ago and may come to the docks soon in AK.
    Several folks with over 40 years harvesting Copper River Salmon have told me that they believe there was once over 5 or 6 species of Chinook Salmon spawning up the Copper River years ago.
    They believe the 60 pound Kings are different from many of what we call “Jack” Kings coming up the river.
    It makes since that there would be sub species within the Chinook family makeup.
    There are 40 species of Crow and over 200 species of squirrel throughout the world, but only 1 species of King salmon???
    Does not make sense.
    These fisheries in the Mat Su are failing to collapse and I know the 10 million pink salmon from the hatcheries has a lot to do with it….almost as much as the over harvesting by the Comm Fish Mafia.
    Alaskans need a plan to fight the “commercial hatchery” paradigm in our waters that is mostly unregulated in their overharvesting practices….it will not come from any politican or appointed offical on the board of fisheries.
    Maybe some resistance is needed in the current system? Alaskans should think about where to apply their energy as we more forward.
    The politicans are failing us miserably at this time and that will not change by tossing a new bum in office.

    • Steve, I fished Copper River for over 25 years and have never heard anyone suggest anything like your folks-I suspect the subject has to do with those king salmon that tend to spend different amounts of years in open ocean (more ocean years gives bigger kings).
      What is your reasoning for badmouthing state biologists? You, of course, have the expertise to judge them??

      • Bill,
        I understand your beliefs and they worked for you as a commercial fisherman in the ocean, but if you look at returns up river throughout the state, you will see an inbalance in resource allocation.
        Still, the biologists press for more “studies” and no real action (like a 4 day on, 3 day off schedule for Comm Fish)…
        The biologists control the commercial fisheries at “ground zero”…
        For this terrible resource management I am very critical of them.

      • That is all horseshit Steve. The upriver folks have increased (incredibly) their take in sockeyes in both Kenai and Copper River that had never been done before. The B. of Fish did this and I really don’t think state biologists had a single thing to do with it.
        We are getting away from king salmon here but you are full of shit there, too IMO. King salmon are returning smaller all over the Pacific NW and their overall numbers are also getting smaller. I suspect you will have some blame on state biologists for this, too!!??? Do you even know what a jack king salmon is?

      • just to keep this accurate. in-river harvest peaked in 2012 and have been falling ever since. the 2011 dipnet harvest of 538,000 sockeye was down to 259,000 in 2016. i still haven’t seen a figure for 2017.
        the Copper River did see a phenomenal catch of 301,000 in 2015, but it was almost smack on the 10-year average of 202,000 in 2016. for comparison sake, the 2015 commercial harvest was 1.8 million.
        preliminary estimates on harvests for 2017 in both fisheries had them looking worse than in 2016.
        i’ll leave you and Steve Stine to fight out the king issue. they are getting smaller Pacific wide. runs, however, have show huge variations in size. the 2015 run of Columbia fall Chinook was the third largest on record. 2013 was the largest.

      • Craig,
        Your statistics on “in river” harvest for Sockeye does not state how much of the catch originated in the Hatchery…
        Same with your Columbia Falls Chinook run.
        Most reports I read from Washington and Oregon admit hatchery stock is interfering with natural runs.
        With all the hatcheries in PWS pumping out salmon, I would like to see the biologists data for percentage of hatchery fish, be it Sockeye or Pink in river.
        I suspect the numbers will remain fairly high as long as the millions of hatchery fish get dumped into the oceans.
        As for our natural runs of Chinook in the Valley, I feel they are also getting resistance from hatchery fish flooding the bays.

      • Craig,
        The feds are reporting that 80 percent of the one million salmon returning to the Columbia Basin were reared in a Hatchery.
        The site also states there are 45 hatcheries in the Pacific pumping out 200 million salmon a year….almost incomprehensible.

  5. I hope this article gets widespread circulation. It highlights the most serious problem in the management of our fishery resource: a lack of leadership. This problem starts at the top with the Governor. When he is replaced then we can fix the problem. First order of business will be the replacement of the Commissioner with the appointment of someone who will believe in management for the many and not just the few commercial users. This followed by the replacement of the commercial and sport fish directors who get their marching orders from Cotten who gets his from Governor Walker. The new governor can then appoint people to the Board of Fisheries who will speak for the hundreds of thousands of Alaskans in South Central Alaska who have been denied a fair opportunity to harvest the resource. The current Governor, Commissioner, Directors, and several current Board members need to go! Only then will there be change.

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