More bad news came Thursday for usually salmon-rich Alaska.
Weekend king salmon fisheries on the creeks of the lower Kenai Peninsula are being shut down with the fishing season just getting underway.
Anglers packed the weekend-only fisheries at Deep Creek, and the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers over the Memorial Day holiday, but they didn’t catch much, mainly because there wasn’t much to catch.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided Wednesday that there are so few fish that the prudent thing to do is close all three of the popular, roadside streams south of Anchorage. The agency tried to couch the move in the rosiest of terms.
“In favor of protecting returning king salmon and increased fishing opportunities in the future, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is implementing the following sport fishing regulation closures on the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and Deep Creek drainages effective 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 2, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, July 15, 2018, to sport fishing,” the state’s emergency order said.
The order did shed some light on why the fishing was so bad over the holiday weekend.
Fish-counting video and sonar on the Anchor detected only 90 king salmon moving upriver. Even in past years of weak runs, the numbers by the end of May have been three times that in the opening days of the fishery.
With the run now barely starting, fisheries managers are already expressing skepticism about being able to meet the minimum spawning goal of 3,800 kings.
Many weak returns
The bad news comes on the heals of commercial closures off the mouth of the Copper River where the sockeye run is faltering.
Returns don’t look much better anywhere else. Fish and Game was reporting that on the Homer Spit “king salmon have begun showing up in the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon, the Fishing Hole, in small numbers, but fishing has been poor.”
The report appeared a little too optimistic. The fishing was so poor over the weekend that the mobs of anglers who normally surround the water-filled hole in the Spit to gang up on returning hatchery fish with nowhere to go were few and far between. There were at best a half-dozen people aimlessly casting into water containing no sign of fish.
To the north on the Kenai River, the count of 417 early run kings is less than half of what it was last year at this time and lower than the dismal year of 2015 when the early run season was closed to protect a weak return.
The Deshka River, the most productive king salmon stream in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage, has so far welcomed but two kings. There were already 416 past the weir at this time last year.
Some scientists suspect weak runs could be the result of the lingering effects of warmer water temperatures in the North Pacific Ocean, which have in the past benefited Alaska salmon but are now thought to have become so warm as to do the opposite.
Unusually large numbers of young salmon appear to have died within three months of hitting the ocean in recent years, Ed Jones, the Chinook salmon research coordinator for Fish and Game told a Sitka conference earlier this month.
The death toll among immature salmon is always high, but it now appears catastrophically high. Ocean survival in some cases has fallen below 1 percent for young salmon at sea.
“That is by far the biggest driver in this period of poor production,” Jones told KCAW Sitka reporter Robert Woolsey. “They’re dying at sea… So yes, fisheries, seals, killer whales are all added factors, but the biggest driver is Mother Nature right now.”
A meteorological phenomenon nicknamed “The Blob” superheated North Pacific waters starting in 2014. The Blob is now dead, but the echo if its effect is believed to remain in the number of young salmon that died in their two to four years at sea.
The Blob played havoc with the food chain.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists believe The Blob was responsible for a 70 percent decline in Pacific cod stocks, but appears to have boosted numbers of sablefish and pollock, both of which sometimes prey on juvenile salmon.
“The utilization of juvenile salmon prey was greatest for juvenile sablefish,” according to a study in Southeast Alaska that found 76 percent of their diet was young salmon. Mushrooming stocks of salmon predators due to The Blob could affect salmon for long after The Blob is gone.
As Laurie Weitkamp, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told the NW Fishletter in April, “things that got set in motion with The Blob haven’t gone away.
“It’s like a pinball machine–things are still ricocheting around. The ball hasn’t gotten ejected yet.”
And the way things are looking now, this might be the summer Alaska catches the bad bounce.