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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.