Gone fish


Fishing was so slow at the mouth of the Kenai River Saturday some gave up in favor of watching fellow dipnetters in futile exercise/Craig Medred photo

NORTH KENAI BEACH – On these Alaska sands famous for July crowds, the people were few Saturday despite the clouds parting to let in the sun. But then no one comes here to sunbathe.

They come to kill salmon, and there are few salmon to be found.

Up the road from the beach and behind the Kenai River bluffs, the Anchorage Daily News on the stand in the local Safeway proclaimed “After years of poor king salmon runs, renowned Kenai River sportfishing community adjusts.”

The newspaper was a little late to the party. The Kenai-Soldotna area adjusted to a shortage of Chinook years ago. Now it is in need of an adjustment to the adjustment that turned the focus on sockeye.

Whether caught with rod-and-reel or personal-use dipnet, sockeye have been driving the Kenai tourism business for years now. Kenai city fathers even managed to turn the sockeye dipnet fishery into the community’s only money-making public service.

Kenai claimed a profit of about $66,000 thanks to dipnet parking, camping, drop-off, boat launch and other fees last year, and it hopes to make about $64,000 this year.

That hope could now be in danger. The money flows when the cars and trucks line up on Spruce Street waiting to pay to park as space becomes available in a beach side parking lot, or pay to drive down to the beach and drop off fishermen.

The lines form when the fish run, and the money follows. It has not been working out so well so far this year.

Upriver from the beach, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar tallied the entry of just over 16,000 sockeye into the river over the weekend. When the fish are running strong, three times as many will show up in a single day.

The hundred or so dipnetters who showed to fish Saturday took solace in the fact the season is still early. Some hoped the fishing would get better Sunday.

It didn’t. And Monday looked even worse.

A webcam high above the beach showed fewer than 30 people fishing at midday, and nobody catching anything.

Far upriver, a few anglers roaming the Kenai in search of fishing opportunities with rod and reel reported finding the occasional school of sockeye that made for decent fishing, but the number of the fish in the river – 106,000, according to the sonar – was low by Kenai standards.

You had to go back to 2011 to find a July 15 with so few fish in the river, and that year Fish and Game knew there were a lot of sockeye holding offshore in Cook Inlet for unknown reasons. They arrived on July 17.

More than 230,000 salmon passed the sonar counter on that one day. Another 117,000 plugged the river the next day. There were sockeye bank to bank.

Unfortunately, there is no indication of a replay this year. An offshore test fishery that probes lower Cook Inlet for incoming salmon has been posting low numbers. They are so low commercial fisheries around the mouth of the river have been restricted.

A chart fisheries consultant Ray Beamesderfer prepared for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) shows the sockeye return now tracking below the lower, in-river goal of 1 million sockeye.

kenai low

Missing Chinook

And then there are the Chinook – the big king salmon of legend in the river home to a world record fish of 97-pounds, 4 ounces. It was caught in 1985.

So much time has passed since that fish was landed it seems to have been in a different era. Lucky angler Les Anderson of Soldotna is long gone, though his legend lives on. His 2003 obituary described him as “the man known to many for making Soldotna famous.” 

By the time he died, big kings were already disappearing from the Kenai. The Alaska Board of Fisheries ordered a slot-limit to protect most of them thinking that a size-selective harvest might be driving the size of the biggest fish downward.

The slot limit hasn’t helped. King salmon have continued to decline in size in the Kenai and, for that matter, everywhere.

A February study led by a University of Washington scientists reported the “loss of the largest and oldest fish from many populations across the west coast of North America. Declines in size‐at‐age were found to be common coast‐wide and were most pronounced in northern populations.”

Now its news when someone catches a 70-pounder as Troy Grote of Aberdeen, South Dakota, did on Saturday. The fish was just shy of the 75-pound “trophy fish” weight for the Kenai the state established in the heyday of big Kenai kings.

It’s been more than a decade since a fish over 75-pounds was caught in the river, and nine years since one topped 70 pounds. 

Thus Grote’s fish caused quite a stir, not least of which because he kept it. On the Facebook page “Mend It” (the name refers to a technique fly fishermen uses to control their line in fast water), a lot of conservation-minded anglers have been debating whether Grote and his fishing guide should have done that. 

The debate has been fueled in part by the Kenai sportfishing association’s pre-season request to Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten to limit king angling to catch-and-release only. Cotten refused to do so, but a return slipping below the minimum spawning goal today forced his hand.

kenai kings fading

Graphic courtesy of Ray Beamesderfer,
Fish Science Solutions

Catch and release only

The short stretch of the lower Kenai that was open to king salmon harvest will go catch-and-release on Wednesday.

“As of July 14, 2018, approximately 2,770 (large) king salmon…have passed the river mile 13.7 king salmon sonar,” Fish and Game said in announcing the emergency closure. “Historically the quarter point of the late run arrives around July 17. Without further restrictions to harvest, the goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved.”

The restriction will come as good news to those upset about Grote’s catch

“…Given the current state of kings I don’t see how anyone can justify smacking a 70(-ponder) and throwing it in the box. In the big scheme of things, ‘it’s only one fish’ (but) those small numbers eventually make a big impact,” Chris Trublood wrote at Mend It.

But the in-river catch is the least of it. Fish and Game Kenai sportfish management coordinator Matt Miller estimates only 101 big kings have been harvested in-river.

The reported king catch in the commercial gillnet fisheries is 1,925, and that number is only destined to grow as the sockeye run builds and commercial fishing heats up. The kings are by-catch in the sockeye fishery.

Canadian scientist have suggested that a modification in setnet gear could dramatically lower the by-catch, but commercial setnetters have refused to buy into the idea. How many kings the state will allow to be caught in gillnets before closing that fishery is unknown.

The fishery was almost entirely shut down in 2012 because of a weak king run, and 443 setnetters were left to sit on the beach or, in many cases, return to their day jobs. Few fishermen make a living setnetting.

Gross earnings per season since the disaster of 2012 have averaged about $27,600 per permit, according to the state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission. Setnetters averaged $6,300 in 2012.

KRSA on Friday appealed to Gov. Bill Walker to end the setnet fishery “until adequate numbers of king and sockeye salmon enter the Kenai River. Walker has not been receptive to ensuring fish for sport or personal-use fisheries.

“Per Department data to date, commercial set netters have harvested more than 10 times the number of large-size king salmon than have sport anglers,” KRSA executive director Ricky Gease charged at that time.

Commercial fishery biologists for the state contend Gease ignored the makeup up of the setnet catch to inflate the numbers. They argue a significant number of kings reported caught in the setnet fishery are undersize. They were reported to be hard at work trying to come up with a solid number this week.

But it is clear not all setnet kings are undersize as evidenced by setnetters photographed proudly posing with their catches.


Setnetters with their trophy kings/Unnamed source photo


And then there is the issue of kings that are caught in the nets and die there only to drop out before they are harvested. Nobody knows how many big kings are lost that way, but the belief is the “drop-out” rate as it is called is weighted toward large kings too big to get caught by their gills in the gillnet mesh.

Instead, they get hung up by their teeth or snout, twist in the current, suffocate and drop out.

The Pacific Salmon Commission has estimated dropout rates at 2 to 8 percent.

“The current region-specific drop-out rates used in the Chinook model were derived from the literature discussed above. The Chinook Technical Committee (CTC) considers this a poorly investigated subject. The rates must be viewed as very uncertain and are expected to be highly variable from fishery to fishery due to variables such as mesh size, prevailing weather and sea conditions, and predator abundance. These rates will continue to be used, however, pending review of updated incidental mortality reports from the agencies. Gill net fisheries occur primarily in SEAK (Southeast Alaska), Fraser River, Puget Sound, the Washington Coast, and Columbia River.

“Until better information is available, the CTC will use the following drop-out mortality rates for these fisheries:
“SEAK (Southeast Alaska): 2 percent
“Fraser River: 8 percent
“Puget Sound: 8 percent (includes some purse seine fisheries)
“Washington Coast: 2 percent
“Columbia River: 3 percent.”

There is no documented drop-out rate for Cook Inlet, but fishery professionals say it is likely within that range of 2 to 8 percent. At 2 percent, the nets would have claimed at most up to 39 big kings by now. At 8 percent, the number could rise to 154  – a dropout mortality rate higher than the number of big kings harvested in the river.

In a situation in which Trublood and others believe every fish counts, the latter number makes for a lot of fish to ponder.

41 replies »

    • got a link to it? the photo was sent to me by someone claiming personal knowledge. but that certainly wouldn’t stop someone from misreporting the date or lying about it.

      Trumpian truth standards seem to be getting to be the norm. i don’t subscribe to them.

      if we can pin the date down in a documentable way, i’m glad to correct as to specifics. but as for the moment, i’m simply removing the time element based on your belief because i give you credit for a certain degree of honesty.

      • Thanks for the credit, Craig. Yes, I have a link. No, I won’t do your research for you. If you knew where the pic came from you could find it on the fisherman’s FB page – with a date stamp. Clearly you have no idea where or when the picture came from. I would have preferred you didn’t change your story cause it was a great example of the truth standards you don’t subscribe to.

      • OK, Todd, fair enough. i told you where i got the photo from. i took the word of someone who was generally trustworthy.
        you say the date is wrong, and you want me to take your word as someone who is generally trustworthy on what the date should be.
        it seems we have a Bohemian standoff.
        at this point, i’m happy to fix the date if either party involved can provide some verification of 2011 or 2016. but barring that, it’s will remain dateless
        the photo is what the photo is, an illustration of some nice size Chinook salmon caught in setnets. they’re not all undersize kings.
        so now, while we’re truthing, how many of Chinook have you caught this year and what’s the total poundage? should be an easy enough thing to look up in your fish tickets if you sold them all.
        given in-river ratios of small kings to big kings, you have to be catching a bunch of small ones, but it would be nice to know how many big ones are getting caught as well.
        or do you take those home so they don’t show up in state records? that would certainly help to keep the average down and fuel the “we only catch jacks” story.

      • Craig – after giving me credit for a certain degree of honesty you insinuate that I don’t report my harvest? Haha that’s great. This is not about me, Craig. This is about your tenuous relationship with the truth. There is no standoff; clearly you don’t know where or when that photo came from, yet you claimed it was from East Side Setnetters last year. You need better sources when it comes to fish issues, but I’m not going to be one of them. You should revert your story back to its original form, do your own research, and print a correction when you find out you were wrong. Or don’t. Whatever.

      • Todd seems to be pretty sensitive. He likes to make assumptions and pass them off as truth . He likes to try and degrade a person who spends time gathering information. He likes to hold information and not share the fact part . Interesting person this Todd is . Just an opinion.

      • Because Todd said the date is wrong and suggested there is evidence to support that, though he refused to produce said evidence. Given the possibility Todd is telling the truth, given the reality that the date might be wrong (the original source not being able to produce evidence of the date either), and given that the date is irrelevant to a photo illustrating that East Side setnets catch large kings, the proper thing to do was to edit the story to remove the date as noted at the bottom of the story.
        To put a date to a photo when the date can’t be confirmed is inaccurate. Thus the inaccuracy was removed.
        That the photo could somehow have been Photoshopped, a possibility in this day, would be another matter. So I have to thank you for confirming you saw the photo on Facebook even if you refuse to provide a link.
        Still, there are now multiple sources confirming the photo is real, which is a good thing.

      • I suppose it is a good thing that you now have multiple sources confirming that the photo you used deceivingly is real. That kind of verification is something real journalists get BEFORE they print a story.

    • Chris,
      at least you are thinking about the election…
      Vote for Mark….we need a “Homegrown” governor for once…
      I am tired of east coast bankers and Houston oil companies dictating all policy in Alaska.
      Begich is the only one who has tried to implement “environmental” legislation while in office.
      In the face of our depleted Salmon habitat, we need a “green” candidate in office this term.

      • Remember the 2013 “Frankenfish” legislation sponsored by Begich?
        “Begich is the lead sponsor of the bill called the “Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States”. AquaBounty Technologies new fish is called the “AquaAdvantage Salmon” and it’s a hybrid of an Atlantic salmon modified with a growth gene from a Chinook salmon. The new fish is also modified with an antifreeze gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout. If ultimately approved the “AquaAdvantage Salmon” would be the first genetically engineered animal destined for human consumption. Senator Begich has also filed a second bill that would require any GE salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered. Both of the bills put forward by Senator Begich are being supported by Senator Lisa Murkowski who issued a statement claiming that we shouldn’t imperil a fishery with an unknown that could create doubts about the entire industry.”

  1. Almost no kings are being gilled in red gear. Large kings sometimes saw through one mesh and then get caught by their dorsal fin-they tend to be alive and don’t drop out. Red nets hung to catch kings have extra mesh hung in to help with the tangling of them. I doubt that many setnets near the Kenai are keying on king salmon.
    Just got back from a PU gillnet trip to the SE Coast after sockeyes-just got 19 as weather didn’t cooperate. They were nice sized fish and only had two reds go through the 5 1/4 stretch mesh. I was interested to see if these wild fish were going to be small like so many of our sockeye runs.

    • are you sure, Bill? all i ever here from ESSNers is that “they’re all jacks. they’re all jacks.”

      that would put them in the size range of big sockeye. i still think of a jack as 28 inches and under (biased by all those years of SE trolling), but when this went before the BOF a few years back, commercial interests pushed for 33, which would be about the size of the big Kenai sockeye i’ve netted.

      the BOF stuck with 20, i believe, which is to me too small, but given the average size range for sockeye is 24 to 33 inches, these are all in the wheelhouse.

      • I will say that Kenai reds tend to run larger than many red runs. I’m not sure of the web size they use there, either.
        Copper river reds were targeted by 5 1/8 gear when I fished and I suspect folks there have humpy nets for the smaller ones lately. We tended to use 5 1/4 inch mesh for PWS wild fish with some going to larger mesh for chums and to avoid the wild pinks that became a problem during poor wild pink years.
        There is no chance a 28 inch king salmon would gill in 5 1/4 inch gear but might in 5 1/2. And a 33 inch king salmon is about 20 plus pounds.

    • Bill: “ Almost no Kings are being filled in red gear” not sure what your definition of “almost no Kings” is. I have personally seen King drop outs from red gear and have spoken to several ESSN gill netters who told me they often snagged a big King in its teeth and in some cases when the full weight of the fish was hanging from the web it simply broke a strand and disappeared in the water. I have rarely heard and personally never seen a King being released from a net alive. And given the gauntlet of miles of web that is on both sides it is likely that if some did manage to survive they would soon find themselves in another net. I am sure that you have seen pictures of East side set net boats and the crews holding up those large Kings with big smiles. They didn’t catch them with a rod and reel. Regrettably it is a fact that a lot of big Kings are harvested and that some drop out. It is time to count them in determining mortality.

      • AF, what is it you are trying to say??
        I stand by my comment about almost no kings are gilled in red gear and that is because so few kings are of the size that would gill in red gear.
        You seem fixed on drop-outs from red gear but I believe the shallower nets have done much to keep the kings out of the nets. I have heard that there are a few sites that still catch large numbers of kings-I have no idea how to reduce these numbers without buying out these sites.

      • Again AF, what is it you are trying to say?? I hope you are not pushing that those kings in those pictures are being gilled in red nets. Heheh!
        How old is that picture?

    • Bill:
      Since the ESSN are restricted and may not use King gear it is clear that they caught those large Kings ( the big ones that you suggest are not caught in red gear) with red gear. And I do know that the picture was taken within the last ten years. Some of the guys in it were strongly told to never take such pictures again. Wonder why?
      I am not fixated on drop outs. I am when such ignorance and false denials of the obvious occurs. I am also concerned that the Dept shows no concern for the undisputed fact that they occur yet do not count them to determine mortality caused by nets. The ESSN fishers, like yourself claim “almost no “ drop outs. So when determining the impact by the net fisheries they are regularly understated. Not fair and certainly not accurate. And it may be reasonable to conclude that “many” drop outs occurr when you consider the tens of miles of gill net in the water during openers in a mixed stock run of salmon. This is the type of needed information to help decide how to fairly spread the burden of conservation between the users.

      • It appears you and I are talking about different things, entirely AF. All I’m saying is that Kenai king salmon are not being gilled in the red gear being used. And I don’t know a thing about the number of drop-outs that still occur in that setnet fleet. I’ll say that someone that is keying on catching king salmon will have few dropouts because they pick their nets often. I just don’t have an idea of how often those setnets are picked.
        The reason that the numbers of dropouts are not counted is because nobody knows the numbers-simple as that.
        By the way, it would probably take somewhere near 9-10 inch mesh to gill those king salmon in your photo. And I think both Yukon and Kusko fishermen are limited now to 7 1/2 inch mesh to target smaller kings.

      • Got it Bill. I thought that you were implying that Kings could not be caught or killed with red gear. It appears you were simply saying that they could not be gilled. I agree with you. However they are caught and killed by being tangled up, snagged, bagged and whatever in red gear.
        Just because there is no data to show exactly how many drop outs does not mean they should not be ignored and not part of the equation. Other jurisdictions have attributed mortalityto drop outs by reasonable estimating them between 2 and as high as 10 percent of the harvest.
        And you are probably correct in saying those beautiful Kings in the picture were not gilled. But they were caught by the ESSN fishers using red gear. Every large King caught by set netters is another nail in their coffin. Lots of incentive to under report by a few unethical ones. The vast majority are ethical but as in any group there are a few bad apples. And that goes for the in river fleet also.
        Thanks for clearing up the misunderstanding.

      • AF, you do have to hand it to the fishery managers by not allowing king gear. I’m not sure of how things shook out with those setnetters but king gear was outlawed on Copper River back in the 90s, I think. Pretty clear that some fish would be lost to everyone (dropouts) but that did allow for more fish past the nets IMO.

    • Bill,
      when you make a statement like :
      “Almost no kings are being gilled in red gear.”
      I would like to know what scientific data there is available to back you up?
      I tend to agree with Craig that more “jacks” are showing up in the runs and would snag just fine in red gear….especially when there is a “wall” of nets blocking the mouth of these rivers.
      The few “jacks” I netted while dip netting last summer on the Copper River looked exactly the same size as the larger reds caught that day?

      • Like I said earlier, depending on the size mesh used by those setnetters, it would be almost impossible to gill a Kenai king salmon in their gear. You use the term snag and I don’t know what that means-all I’m talking about is the gilling of kings and there are just not enough 6-7 lb kings returning to the Kenai to make a difference IMO. The number of nets also don’t enter into the situation and they are not blocking the mouth of the river.
        Were there a large number of especially small jacks returning they would noticeably be caught by drift fleet, as well, and F & G would be aware and most likely predict a larger run for the following year. I’ve not heard a peep of that occurring, have you?

  2. The days of the big king salmon are probably finished. My belief is that genetic line has been killed off as most were females thus the eggs ever made it into the river bed.
    Our halibut fishery needs to be regulated on the size that’s allowed to be harvested. From what my Federal NOAA neighbor tells me 80% of all halibut over 80 pounds are female and 99.999% over 100 pounds are female. Circle hooks need to be the only hook used so that releasing them results in less mortality.
    The biggest “bitch” I have with the commercial fishery are trawlers. They’re like clear cutters or open pit mining just rape and ravage the environment. Craig apparently has a foot in Michigan so if he looks at Marquette County in Yooperland he’ll see what I mean by rape and ravage. (CCIs open pit tacanite mine)
    That example is close to what trawlers do in the ocean.

  3. Our fish need to be treated the same as deer/elk/moose. No commercial selling of their meat regardless of whether they come from rivers or oceans. You want fresh salmon, you have to catch it yourself.

    • Without a commercial fishery of pinks what would you suggest be done with a hundred million of them getting into the creeks?
      Perhaps make some of these creeks into the largest bear baiting stations on the planet!? Would be a similar situation for chums.

      • Seeing as the vast majority of pinks caught in the commercial fishery are hatchery fish, if you wanted less pinks, shut down the hatcheries producing pinks.

        The idea of not selling fish commercially is completely absurd.

      • The largest bear baiting stations on the planet, as stupid as that sounds, is still a better option than the complete extinction of the major salmon runs for profit. This will be a repeat of the buffalo. Short term personal greed will always win out over the natural resource. This goes for the guides, and the politicians as well. We all know the fish only for profit guys will continue after the kings are gone to the silvers, pinks etc. until all the runs are gone. So giant bear baiting stations seem like a much smarter alternative to no fish for anyone or any animal.

      • Bill,
        There’s a first time for everything!

        The thing to remember is that people that are in it for the money only do it for the money. When a species no longer is commercially viable it will begin to rebound, and it would be damned near impossible to kill every last fish of any given species in Alaska with the enormity of this state let alone the laws in place that prevent that from happening.

        We are currently in the death throes of the Kenai commercial king guide industry, that is why they are making such a racket…they have killed their golden goose and now they are blaming everybody and everything for their actions. Thankfully in Alaska there are so many salmon rearing rivers and streams and creeks that even if the Kenai run of kings is completely decimated, which will never happen, there are still large and small runs all over the state that will keep the species going, this goes for all species of salmon in Alaska.

      • You make many good points. You also make my point. To blame the guides alone for the crash of the large Kings is naive and ridiculous when their numbers are the 1/10th the harvest and all their catches are closely monitored. I would challenge you to show 1 guide photo that has 1/2 the quality Kings shown in the article by 1 commercial boat crew.

      • Ken Day, your solution would destroy the property values of every property along any salmon stream in the state. The bears would need to bring their own rock to stand on along them during most of late Summer as the millions of pinks and chums worked their way up. A few years ago the cabin owners got together and stopped a remote release of reds to a lake up the Copper because of the bear problems it caused them and that was with commercial fishing of them.
        Granted the over escapements would poison most of those runs and they would collapse but that would be no skin off your nose, right?
        This has nothing to do with buffalo, either.

  4. Soon coming to all: stop catching large halibut. As far as the kenai, never more bait. And better yet, never more guides.

  5. About time that drop out rates are examined. The Dept assesses approx 7% mortality against the in river fishers for C&R fishing. But it does not count the Chinooks that drop out of the nets graveyard dead as fish killed by the set net fishery. This discrimination against the sports and guided sports fishery must stop and all users required to share the burden of conservation. Not just the sports fishers.

  6. As my friend Jim said…kill em all now so we can get it over with….sad but looks like we are headed that way.

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