With king salmon runs faltering all around Cook Inlet, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association on Friday appealed to Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten to increase the protection offered Alaska’s most famous game fish.
Fearful the return of late-run Kenai kings is likely to mirror the weak runs now taking place in other rivers, the association asked that in-river fishing for late-run fish be restricted to catch-and-release and that commercial setnet fishermen fishing off the river’s mouth be limited to one, 24-hour opening per week.“This request seeks to avoid excessive harvest of a potentially weak run which could result in a disastrous closure of both sport and commercial fisheries later in the season,” the organization said in a public statement.
The sport-fishing season for late-run kings on the river home to a world-record, nearly 100-pound salmon opens on Sunday, and the association says there is no reason to believe the return is going to be anything but weak, as was the early-run.
King salmon, or Chinooks as they are called elsewhere, came back to the Inlet this year in numbers that have not been seen since the 1970s when Alaska salmon were in crisis.
As of Thursday, only 764 kings had been reported counted in the popular Anchor River near the south end of the Kenai Peninsula. In a good year, there would have been 10 times as many by the same date. A weak year would still have seen five times as many.
The river is now projected to see a return of somewhere around 1,000 before the run is over. That’s between a quarter and a third of the minimum spawning goal of 3,800.
Elsewhere, the story is the same. Only 7,031 Chinook have passed a fish-counting weir on the popular Deshka River, a tributary to the Susitna River in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough just north of the state’s largest city. That’s 2,750 fish short of last year at the same time.
And in 2017, the Deshka fell about 1,200 fish shy of its minimum spawning goal. It could miss that by twice as much this year.
The early-run Kenai return, meanwhile, looks on its way to finishing with a tally of 3,000 fish in-river, the lowest on record. The minimum spawning goal is 3,900.
The early-run fishery was closed to all but catch-and-release fishing in the middle of June because of the lack of fish. About a week later, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the late-run season would open in the lower river with a ban on bait. The bait ban significantly reduces the in-river catch by anglers, but the agency noted the effect on other fisheries.
“The management plan also indicates if bait is prohibited in this sport fishery than the personal use and commercial fishery also experience restrictions,” the state noted in the emergency order restricting the fishery. “The retention of king salmon is prohibited in the personal use (dipnet) fishery and commercial fishing periods of the Upper Subdistrict, excluding the East (Kenai Peninsula) forelands, will be open for no more than 48 hours a week.”
KRSA doesn’t think those restrictions go nearly far enough. Historically, KRSA executive Gease noted, the early king return is a strong indicator of run strength for the late run.
Given that, he argued in a prepared statement, “it’s time for action as currently fewer than 100 large king salmon are passing the counter each day and the forecast for the second run of Kenai kings is the third lowest run size on record.”
That forecast calls for 21,503 kings over 34 inches. The early-run forecast was for 5,499 of which about 55 percent have shown up.
Catch-and-release would allow for continuation of the in-river sport fishery worth tens of millions of dollars to the Kenai-Soldotna tourist economy with a minimum of dead kings. A state study concluded that on average more than 92 percent of the kings brought to the boat and then released survive to spawn.
There are no known survival rates for kings released from the commercial setnets, and historically few attempts have been made to release fish there in the name of conservation.
Though the setnet fishermen are primarily after sockeye salmon, and though the value of Chinook to commercial fishermen represents only 2 percent of the total value of the Upper Cook Inlet harvest, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, some setnetters contend they are owed a portion of the king salmon harvest because setnets have been catching Chinook since setnets were first put in the Inlet.
The setnetters have even opposed technological changes that some scientists contend might allow them to catch more sockeye while minimizing the bycatch of kings. The setnetters say they just want to go on fishing the way they’ve always fished.