Missing sockeye


With the sockeye run weak, empty net walkers and discouraged watchers have been a common scene in the Kenai River dipnet fishery/Craig Medred photo

With the commercial catch of sockeye in Upper Cook Inlet almost double the number of sockeye in the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has downgraded the size of the Kenai sockeye returnin a move that might allow for more commercial fishing.

Some in-river fishermen are madder than hell about the late Tuesday decision, but biologists for the state agency are simply and dutifully following a management plan laid out by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in early 2017.

Led by Board members Robert Ruffner from Kenai and Board Chairman John Jensen from Petersburg, the Board that year made clear its opinion that Cook Inlet sockeye, most of which come from the Kenai River,  are to be managed to benefit the commercial fishing industry.

Jensen outlined the marching orders for state managers as the meeting was drawing to a close. An earlier Board, he explained, decided to alter regulations to put more salmon in the Kenai and in streams in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and that cost commercial fishermen.

The Board under his leadership, he added, was making changes that “will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”

How much more fishing time commercial fishermen might get out of Fish and Game’s late Tuesday decision to downgrade the run and reduce the goal for sockeye in-river to a minimum of 900,000 – down from 1 million – is unclear.

Everything depends on how many sockeye are still in the Inlet or on their way back. There didn’t appear to much of anything entering the river Wednesday. A pair of Anchorage dipnetters fishing the north bank at the mouth reported that not only did they not catch a fish all day, they didn’t even feel the “bump” of a salmon running into their nets.

The view of the north bank offered by a camera on the bluff above showed almost no one catching fish when periodically checked throughout the day.

Cook Inlet commercial fishery biologist Pat Shields emailed that agency modeling now puts the total return to the Kenai at less than 2 million – well below the forecast of 2.5 million  – but he didn’t want to say exactly how much below.

There remains some hope some of the fish might simply be late as they were last year.


Commercial restriction

It is worth noting, however, that Fish and Game late Wednesday afternoon canceled the regular Thursday opening of the commercial drift gillnet fishery in the central district of the Inlet and closed set gillnetting in the east foreland section. The only commercial fishermen allowed to fish were setnetters “within 600 feet of the mean high tide mark on the Kenai Peninsula shoreline in the Kasilof section of the Inlet.”

Almost all the fish caught there are bound for the Kasilof River, one of the few streams in the Southcentral region of the state that is getting a normal return of sockeye. It has already topped the minimum goal of 160,000 fish in-river and is moving toward the upper goal of 390,000.

Elsewhere – with the exception of the Main Bay hatchery in Prince William Sound – sockeye returns look grim. The return to the Copper River near the Canadian border in Eastern Alaska peaked on July 16 and has been in free fall ever since. 

The early closure of the commercial fishery off the mouth of the Copper after a catch of only 38,000 fish in May ensured the in-river goal of a minimum of 360,000 sockeye will be met, but the river now looks likely to fall short of the upper goal of 750,000.

A return of 1.9 million sockeye had been forecast, leaving the fishery now more than 1 million sockeye short and the commercial fishery devastated. A harvest of 1.2 million sockeye had been anticipated.

And the early, first-of-season Copper sockeye and kings – only 7,000 of which were caught – are coveted by restaurants across the country. The demand this year was such the season started with fishermen being offered an unheard of $9.50 per pound for sockeye and well more than twice that for kings, an incidental catch in the sockeye fishery.

The financial loss due to what amounted to a near, full-season closure of the fishery could run somewhere near $50 million, although the Cordova-based gillnet fleet did get some help from a bigger than expected return of sockeye to the Main Bay hatchery.

The catch there is nearing 1 million, which is above the upper range of the projected return of a maximum of 839,000. But the Main Bay fish aren’t worth nearly as much as the Copper River fish.

How bad the commercial sockeye fishery in Cook Inlet will turn out to be at this point remains unclear. Following the wishes of the Board, managers allowed some extra commercial fishing in the Inlet early in the season and that helped push the sockeye catch to 664,000 to date.

Depressed catch

That’s about 35 percent of the forecast harvest of 1.9 million.

The intent of fishing as hard as possible early was to try to catch a lot of sockeye with the driftnet fleet in the deepwater of the Inlet to protect an expected low return of king salmon to the Kenai. The drift fleet can catch a lot of sockeye with a minimal catch of kings.

Once the sockeye move inshore, however, the king catch starts to climb, and if a lot of sockeye move inshore, leading to a need to fish heavily with setnets to slow the entry of sockeye into the Kenai, a lot of kings get caught.

The mixed-stock nature of the fishery coupled to less-than-selective gillnets – “dirty fishing gear” as fishery experts describe it – makes for a difficult balancing act for managers.

They’ve been struggling to get an adequate king return past the nets into the Kenai this year.

So few kings made it into river in the two weeks after the July 1 opening of the sport fishery that angling has been limited to catch and release fishing since July 16. The Kenai once supported a lucrative, guided sport fishery for kings, but it faded years ago as the big fish disappeared.

Prior to the catch-and-release order this year, the sport fishery had harvested but 101 “big kings,” the fish greater than 34 inches that attract trophy anglers, according to Fish and Game.

Dirty fishery

In the Monday opening of the commercial set net fishery, Shields reported a catch of 240 Chinook, about half of which were those “big kings.” In other words, the one opening of the setnet fishery resulted in the death of more kings than the entire first half of the season for the in-river sport fishery.

What the final tally will be is unknown. The sport fishery for kings closes on July 31, but the commercial season runs into August if there are sockeye or pinks to be caught. And as long as the nets fish, they catch some kings. And the later into the season the fishery continues, the higher the percentage of big kings caught tends climb, according to state data.

Still, the king run appears on track to meet the minimum goal for big spawners in river. That is good news, but anglers were far from happy given other changes that came with the sockeye salmon downgrade.

Those had the Kenai River Sportfishing Association fuming on Wednesday.

“With the new (lower) escapement goal range, commercial set netters will be able to fish regular 12-hour periods in August on Mondays and Thursdays, plus an additional 24 hours per week,” KSRA noted on its Facebook page. “Drifters will have no restrictions and can fish Inlet-wide on regular periods (Mondays and Thursdays), plus unrestricted time through emergency openers in the corridor area off of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.”

Those periods are not, however, guaranteed. They could be closed if the sockeye run continues to falter. Only 354,000 sockeye have so far entered the Kenai at a time when the run is historically half over.

Reached by telephone late Wednesday, a frustrated KRSA executive director Ricky Gease said he didn’t want to talk. It would be better, he said, to quote the group’s measured response on Facebook.

Without mentioning Ruffner or Jensen, the post noted the Ruffner-Jensen led Board killed old restrictions on the net fisheries designed to protect coho (silver) salmon in August.

It is because of the increasing return of coho that the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river – the fishery that feeds tens of thousands of Alaskans – ends on July 31.

The commercial fishery, however, continues until August 15. The old management plan called for a closure of the fishery if coho catches started to swell as they sometimes do and could this year with the mix of fish offshore in the Inlet at the moment appearing heavily weighted with silvers.

The drift fleet on Monday caught almost as many silvers as it did sockeye. Normally, the catch this time of year would be largely the latter. The old regulations were designed specifically to protect silvers in a year like this, but the Board did away with that protection.

“Despite acknowledging the potential of large commercial harvests of silver salmon, the BOF waved off any negative impacts on sport fisheries,” the KRSA post said, “when silver salmon are supposedly a priority fishery in both the Mat-Su Valley and Kenai River (sport fisheries).”

Were the issues involving silvers, sockeyes and kings not enough, there were also questions being raised as to how many of the sockeye the state sonar counts in the Kenai are actually sockeye in a year when pink salmon, many of similar size, are returning, plus what might be caught if the state decides to give setnetters more fishing time to harvest what is expected to be a large return of pinks.

That isn’t going to happen, however, unless enough sockeyes show to indicate the in-river sockeye goal is going to be met, and that isn’t looking good.

Gillnets are somewhat selective in the size of the fish they catch. Depending on the size of their gill-snagging mesh, they can catch fish of various sizes. But they can’t begin to distinguish between a 5-pound humpy, a 4-pound sockeye and a 6-pound silver, or a 4-pound humpy, a 6-pound sockeye and a 5-pound silver, or any similar mix.

The KRSA is concerned a fishery supposedly targeted on humpies (pinks) could further boost the silver harvest, but the group’s comments were restrained compared to those of Gary Barnes who runs the Alaska Outdoor Journal, a Facebook page followed by more than 17,000 Alaska dipnetters and anglers.

“Let me say I’m so upset with our Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plans that I am barely containing myself here,” he wrote. “(But)  I intend to expose every single facet of every management plan that is designed to benefit one single-user group at the complete expense of the other two in-river user groups. There is no science or biology in any of these plans, only greed!”

There really isn’t much to expose, however. Everything has largely happened in plain sight. Gov. Bill Walker is strongly backed by commercial fishing interests; he appointed a Board intended to put commercial interests first; and commercial fishermen are getting what  they wanted.

The fallout is not a secret. It was predictable if sockeye returns faltered. And they did.

UPDATE – This story was updated on July 29 to reflect that more fishing time in the Inlet for commercial fisheries is looking unlikely to do the extremely weak nature of the sockeye return.










23 replies »

  1. You all get smart when fish dont show up blame elected officials
    Stop your smarts let the biologists do their professional jobs stop tying hands for them then start blaming every n everyone how bad everything going
    We seen over escapment dont work under escapement we dont like
    Sports go out have fun torturing fish then releasing for next guy to hook it by the time spawning its dead get everyone out river no motorized boats no fishing where spawning grounds are not to disrupt
    Blaming fishermen catching extra what not needed for overescapment is absurd
    Protect the brooding grounds where fish survive not to damage for future habitats

  2. This is a biased article! The whole article is in support of sport fisherman, and not an ounce of proper investigation of facts and news. One of the big factors of a low return is over 10 years of overescapment, Its not a surprise that their is a lower return. Commercial fisherman aren’t happy at all they’ve been shutdown almost the whole month of the hot run! They’ve made almost no income after expenses. This article doesnt state that Drifters are barely getting by. Drifters are alaska residents too, with families that need to make a living off of a continuosly failing fishery. Bad enough being shut down over pure politics and not sound reasoning and science.!

    • Mike: a.) do you know what escapement is? b.) exactly when was the hot run?

      drifters were coming in early Monday because they couldn’t find any fish, and the Kenai sonar has been falling – not climbing – since.

      i’m sorry drifters are having a tough time. i’m sorry about any small businessman having a tough time. but they story at the moment isn’t about the people. it’s about the fish.

  3. “Today, there are 25 hatcheries operated by PNP corporations. The State of Alaska also operates two sport fish hatcheries in Fairbanks and Anchorage that produce Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, coho salmon and Arctic char for sport harvest.”….does that sound like “Wild Alaskan Salmon” to you?
    What is also recently discovered is that even thou most hatcheries are considered “Private Non-Profit” they may each have a 30 year low interest loan through the State of Alaska…each facility is allowed to borrow up to 10 Million Dollars and not even pay on the principle for 6-10 years?
    Does this sound some like form of socialism to you?
    Loans to all the permit holders, loans for new boats and gear….then subsidize the hatchery program with 30 year loans?
    This government run ranching program with sales to China stinks to high heaven and where the hell is the state getting the money to have collateral for ALL these loans?
    You guessed it, the $666 million a year that Walker stole from the people….he tossed it in an account so the “Banksters United” gang will float his millions (maybe BILLIONS) in fish ranching loans.
    Every candidate running for governor should be asked how he will clean up this mess and restore our natural runs before it is too late!

    • Steve, we may not agree on Global Warming and that is cool, (I can say “cool” right 🙂 but, you nailed it here. “With politics comes money, with money comes politics”. Just a nasty cycle for the Special Interest.

  4. I notice Craig has exact numbers for every species caught on each day the commercial drift and setnet fleets fished, but only anecdotal accounts of the dipnet fleets catch (looking at webcams, talking to a couple guys on the beach). Perhaps it is time for more accurate reporting from the dipnet fleet

    • What do you suggest be done to get more accurate reporting from
      The dipnet “fleet”? The commercial permit holders, which number a little over 1100 in UCI sell their fish to a very few buyers who record the harvest on fish tickets that are reviewed daily. And there are a limited number of openings where fish are harvested. All except for rare exceptions these are done electronically. Pretty easy info to get by anyone.
      On the other hand there are many thousands of dip netters and their family which often generate large crowds and traffic jams. Many process their harvest by canning and smoking. They are all required to report their harvest sometime after the season or they do not get the next season’ permit. It would take a lot of money and Human Resources to record daily harvests by dipnetters. Money the Dept just does not have. Tell us how you see it happening. I like the idea of getting this data real time, but don’t see it occurring.

      • Everyone has a smartphone. Why couldn’t dipnetters report their catch daily? everyone else harvesting these fish reports what they catch, when they caught it, and where they caught them. Seems like this would be essential to Adfg in terms of managing the run, especially when the efficiency of the dipnet fleet (fishing from boats) keeps increasing

      • Easy, have law enforcement at each of the beach/river entry points and get the catch data as people leave. The city/state are simply turning a blind eye to easy to access data and enforcement of dipping regulations.

      • Omar – how would real time data on the dip net harvest improve ADFG’s in-season management of the Kenai River sockeye fishery?

        By mid-August ADFG has the harvest data from dip netters from the returned harvest cards, and this is used to calculate the total run size of Kenai River sockeye. The harvest data from commercial, sport, and personal use plus escapement gives you the total run size for Kenai River sockeye salmon.

        The sonar counter at Mile 19 is used in-season to track the number of sockeyes in the Kenai River. The escapement range in any management plan is based on sonar counts minus any type of harvest above the sonar counter. The sport fish harvest above the Mile 19 counter remains fairly consistent from year to year, and becomes available after the sport fish statewide harvest survey numbers are tabulated the following spring. So the final escapement – sonar minus sport fish harvest above mile 19 = escapement, lags about one year.

        There is actually no real value to having in-season data on the number of fish harvested by the personal use fishery – the amount is not going to change significantly from year to year and ADFG has the tools in place to make good estimates of what is being caught – on years when more fish are in the river, more fish are going to be harvested in both the dip net and sport fishery. When there is fewer fish entering the river, fewer fish are going to be caught in these fisheries.

        I don’t see how spending additional money actual moves the needle for in-season management. It won’t give ADFG any additional information that will be used significantly for in-season management decisions.

  5. Take a long Look at the enormous Columbia river system. It flows through 5 U.S. states and British Columbia. The canneries markex the beginning of the downfall while thousands of hatcheries and dozens of dams drove the final nails into the coffin.

    Learn from others mistakes! More human interaction and manipulation only leads to more problems!

    Shut everything down for 4 years and let them all come home to spawn unmolested.

    Screw the corporate giants selling our food supply to people who hate us, which profits only a few FAT CATS and the GOVERNMENT!

    We must look out for ourselves first! We cannot eat paper money!

    • For Pete’s sake learn something about the system you say has its final nail in its coffin. The Grand Coulee Dam destroyed all the salmon upstream of it because no fish ladder was used. However there are many other successful salmon fisheries downstream from Grand Coulee, though most are enhanced hatchery fish. Canneries had nothing to do with Columbia’s problems and hatcheries are providing a lot of salmon for sport and commercial fishermen (including AK’s troll fleet).

  6. Craig, if the setnet fishery does get increased time to harvest large numbers of pinks I suspect they will also be limited to the size mesh they can use. Humpy gear has usually been in the neighborhood of 4 3/4 inch stretch mesh to 4 7/8 inch. In PWS when there were problems with wild pinks in certain years we could fish reds and chums with gear 5 3/8 inch mesh or greater. My guess would be that those setnetters would be limited to say less than 5 inch mesh to limit the catch of reds and silvers-of course they would still get a share of jacks.

    • Bill,

      Give Craig some credit, he is evolving in his understanding of how gillnets work. He’s even started using mesh size in his articles. Plus he went from saying gillnets were “indiscriminate” killers to “somewhat selective in the size of the fish they catch”, that’s progress in my book.

      I must have read over the part about the record breaking returns seen out in Bristol Bay…another strange year in Alaskan salmon returns.

      • Steve: Your comment about Bristol Bay is somewhat accurate. What has happened and is quite unbelievable is that the Nushagak Rivet has had a run of over 33 Million sockeye return with almost 10 Million escapement. That might be a record never to be broken again. Can you imagine that escapement. This will test the Dept’s one sided science that says that over escapement is bad. I believe the Dept wants only around 1.5 Million escapement. It is hard to understand what possibly is happening in that river. But I believe the entire eco system will benefit. The rest of the Bay is just so so.

      • Wow, 10 million up the river that’s amazing. I would think with all the news about the way sockeye returns this year that would be right up there with where all the rest of them. Putting that many fish in the system will give some good data going forward like you said, looking at the previous years to see what happened with the parent years should also add a ton of data.

  7. They need to put hatcheries on all our big rivers to offset fishing, boost overall fish numbers, and try to eliminate bad years (get rid of the low, lows). Places with hatcheries tend to do better consistently. Unfortunately people are so concerned with taking, they can’t be bothered by giving back to the river system. The river is less healthy that way.

    For example, part of why the Kasilof river has done better than the Kenai river, despite being right next door, is that Kasilof has historically had a hatchery on one of its tributaries (hopefully it’s still running), and and the Kenai doesn’t.

    Maybe the state could offer a mix of state and federal tax write offs for companies that donate to a state hatchery system. Or a $1 fee on every fishery or crewmen license dedicated for hatcheries and other things that boost fish and shellfish populations. Something. Something to give back for all that we and others take from the river system, so that it keeps surviving.

    My two cents anyways.

    • the problem with that idea is the belief that hatcheries get rid of the lows is a myth. some big monied players in the Pacific Northwest learned that the hard way a generation ago. they spent big on getting into the commercial ranching business, and it was a bust.

      hatcheries are good for creating bigger runs where there isn’t much natural production – say, for instance, Ship Creek or Crooked Creek, a Kasilof tributary, or Bear Creek in Seward.

      but you’re not going to replace a Kenai or Kasilof sockeye run with a hatchery. all you’re likely to do, if history is a guide, is mess it up. in fact, there is some evidence that what is going on now with the Kenai, and certainly with the Copper River, is tied to the hugely boosted hatchery production in Prince William Sound, which produce tons of pinks.

      Hidden Lake in the Kenai drainage, if you don’t know, has been hatchery enhanced for years, and in the last few has been a big bust. hatchery enhancement of Kasilof/Tustumena sockeye ended years ago, and it has largely gone along gang busters.

      it’s a complicated picture.

  8. Craig,
    Do have any figures as to how much revenue the state of Alaska brings in each year through it’s commercial lending program to commercial fisher-people ?
    Would like a total figure (like permits, fees, etc. plus the money generated from loans)…
    I am sure it is huge since the state does not bat an eyelash when depriving residents of the harvest each summer.

    • Current lending rates are as follows:

      Commercial Charter Fisheries 6.75% 3 AAC 80.345(f)
      Commercial Fishing 6.75% 3 AAC 80.055(k)
      Community Quota Entity 6.75% 3 AAC 80.055(k)
      Engine Fuel Efficiency Upgrade 5.75% 3 AAC 80.055(k)
      Fisheries Enhancement 5.50% 3 AAC 81.055(e)
      Mariculture 5.75% 3 AAC 80.445(c)

      So, the big question is does the state give loans to the hatcheries under “fisheries enhancement”?
      This would explain a lot of the recent decisions we have seen from “da board”.

  9. Here’s a quote from Lisa Murkowski in an ADN story today: “One-third of Alaska’s seafood goes to China, she said”….Now explain to me how a U.S. Senator living in Alaska can feel good about this when thousands of her delegation in S.C. have faced closures to their favorite streams and dip netting locations?
    She will never get my vote again…that’s for sure!

  10. The next election is very important. If Walker gets re-elected it could mean the end of the Chinook sports fishery in South Centeal Alaska. If truth be told I truly believe that current Adf&g Commissioner and Director of Commercial Fish would just as soon see the permanent demise of the Chinook in the Kenai because they view the species as a problem in managing the sockeye fisheries. And I am confident in saying that the drift and set net fleets feel the same way. They want to eliminate the Chinook so there will be no restriction to their fisheries in order to save the Chinook. Walker will continue to support these concepts.
    There is hope, however. All it will take is a new Governor willing to put a balanced person in as Commissioner and who will be willing to appoint members to the Board of Fisheries who will put the fish first and not the fishers. And, who will set policy consistent with the 21st century instead of based on the fishery 50 years ago. Times have changed and policy must keep up with the times.

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