UPDATE: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is shutting down sockeye salmon fishing in the Kenai River from Cook Inlet to the Kenai Lake bridge in Cooper Landing starting a midnight Friday with the exception of what is popularly known as the Russian River Fly-Fishing-Only area. That area contains a short stretch of the Kenai River near the Russian River ferry. Read the regulations carefully.
Alaska’s most famous salmon river is heading into August on the cusp of an unprecedented salmon collapse.
Not since 1979, when the 49th state was still battling back from a salmon crash caused by less than stellar fisheries management and a two-decade-long, cold-water regime in the North Pacific Ocean, has the Kenai River neared the end of July with so few sockeye salmon in-river.
The sockeye failure has forced a temporary closure in the commercial fishery that looks to become permanent even as anger level rises; an early end to the popular personal-use dipnet fishery that helps tens of thousands of Alaskans fill their freezers in the name of food security; a no-harvest rule in the fading fishery for the river’s once famous Chinook, and a reduction in the sport-fish bag limit for sockeye salmon which has come to fuel a good chunk of the Kenai Peninsula tourism industry.
Anglers should brace themselves for the probability of a complete closure on sockeye from Skilak Lake to Cook Inlet any day.
The problem is in the numbers. As of Monday, fewer than 435,000 sockeye had passed an Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar counter in the Kenai upriver from the Inlet. To find a year in which there were fewer, you have to go back 38 years to when the sonar was first deployed on the river.
Only about 394,000 had come back by July 30 in 1979, but the numbers that came after are what are most disconcerting to fishery managers. Only 19,000 more showed up before the sonar was shutdown on August 14 with the in-river count at 413,000.
The minimum goal is 700,000 with all in-river fisheries closed.
Whether what happened in ’79 is going to happen this year nobody knows. Fish and Game has very little experience with Kenai returns this small.
The only other year that comes anywhere close to this one is 1984 when 460,000 sockeye passed the sonar by July 30. Almost 22,000 more made it back before the sonar was shut down on Aug. 8 of that year.
If those numbers are calculated into a day rate, it’s probably safe to assume a return of 2,500 per day and an Aug. 14 number that would come in at around 37,500 fish. And since the sonar has in the years since 1984 run as late as the end of August one might be able to hope for 80,000 fish out of one of these small returns, but….
The problem is the boat load of variables. Commercial fishermen who still believe the run is late are pressuring a cooperative-sounding Gov. Bill Walker and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten to allow them to resume fishing. They point to 2005 and 2006 when the sockeye were returning by the tens of thousands per day in much of August.
Between July 30 and Aug. 31, 2006, more than 1.2 million sockeye made their way into the Kenai. Between July 30 and Aug. 21, 2005, almost 800,000 sockeye hit the river, and on Aug. 13 alone, the in-river return topped 85,500 sockeye for the day.
That is a one-day, August show of fish about 23,000 bigger than the best daily return of sockeye to the Kenai this year. Could something like 2005 happen again this August?
Yes, in the sense that anything could happen, including aliens arriving from space any day.
Realistically, however, the probability is low – very, very low. For one thing, big runs such as 2005 and 2006 tend to have big, broad shoulders. When graphed, their shape is like that of Mount Denali whereas weak runs tend to look more like the Washington Monument.
The odds are the August numbers for this run will look more like ’79 and ’84 than ’05 and ’06, which is a conclusion Fish and Game’s offshore test fishery (OTF) is pointing toward.
The OTF off Anchor Point near the mouth of Cook Inlet functions something like an early warning system for sockeye coming into the Inlet. And it hasn’t been detecting many fish.
Triple digits in the OTF catch are the sign that big schools of sockeye are on the move. The only time the OTF has hit triple digits this year was when it posted a 108 on Friday. Those fish should provide a good boost to the Kenai today or tomorrow.
But there do not appear to be many sockeye behind them. The OTFs since Friday have been 11, 16 and 9. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the numbers in 2005 when the Inlet welcomed a monster run of sockeye.
The harvest that year topped 5.2 million, the highest in the decade and almost exactly twice the long-term average for the nearly 60 years from 1954 to 2011. Almost 2 million sockeye also escaped commercial nets and made it into the river that year.
Everyone was happy.
Circular firing squad
Now everyone is unhappy.
Dipnetters blame commercial fishermen for the shortage of fish in-river. Anglers blame dipnetters and commercial fishermen for the lack of sockeye upriver. Commercial fishermen accuse dipnetters and anglers of forcing the closure of the commercial fishery, though the closure was vital to protect sockeye spawning stock.
Many of the people yelling the loudest don’t have a clue as to how fisheries management works. They just want to be allowed to catch their fish. Commercial fishermen who failed to budget for the occasional bad year now want Fish and Game to allow them to fish for pinks, chums and cohos (silvers) in the Inlet because there are no sockeye, and they need some way to make some money.
They don’t seem to understand that gillnets are dirty fishing gear that can’t tell the difference between a 5-pound pink, a 6-pound coho, a 6-pound chum, and a 5-pound sockeye. If they’re allowed to fish for any salmon now, they’re going to catch some sockeye, and the Kenai is at the point it needs every sockeye for spawning, which is why sport fishing will likely be closed this week.
Unless everyone gets lucky, very lucky.
The only other run this decade close to what the Kenai is now seeing put 675,000 sockeye in the river by July 31. That was in 2008. Another 242,000 sockeye went upstream before the sonar shut down. The finally tally of 917,000 that year was just over the minimum in-river goal of 900,000.
But another 242,000 fish this year might not cut it: 435,000 + 242,000 = 677,000. Six-hundred and seventy-seven-thousand doesn’t even meet the river’s minimum spawning goal which is arrived at by taking the 900,000 in-river goal and removing an estimated sport catch of 200,000 at this return level.
The rod-and-reel harvest in-river, like the dipnet harvest near the river mouth, is highly density dependent. If the river is plugged with fish, the harvest jumps up. If the river is empty, the harvest slides down.
Anglers caught about 400,000 late run sockeye in the Kenai in 2011 when 1.6 million sockeye stormed past the sonar. The estimated catch was under 300,000 in 2008 when the return was 917,000.
The Copper River to the east of Cook Inlet showed the normal pattern of weak salmon runs this year. Both the first and second runs of sockeye went down fast. The latter, according to area sport fish biologist Mark Somerville, appeared to show a split peak because of a river flooding so badly fish struggled against the current. After the water began to drop, they surged, peaked and dropped like a rock.
State fisheries managers in Cordova were quick to spot the weakness of the Copper return. They shut the season down before the end of May with the commercial catch at less than 25,000.
It was a disaster for Cordova-based fishermen and a setback for foodies who crave first-of-the-season Copper River salmon, but the closure helped boost the in-river sockeye return to near the 750,000 maximum goal.
To the north, Inlet managers let their fishery run – in part because of a strong sockeye return to the Kasilof River – and fishermen caught 678,000 sockeye before it became unavoidably obvious the Kenai had big problems.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Approximately 4.6 million sockeye were forecast to return to the Inlet with a projected commercial catch of 1.9 million. At 900,000 below the 10-year-average harvest, things looked a little bleak evern before Mother Nature decided she’d really mess with everyone.
Scientists will be debating that for months, probably years, after this season is over. Some want to simply blame “The Blob,” a come and gone pool of warm water in the North Pacific, but there are indications it helped some salmon. Southeast Alaska coho grew rapidly when the The Blob was at its warmest.
Others have suggested pink salmon, supported in part by hatcheries in Alaska and Russia, are taking over the North Pacific range and in the process displacing and reducing many populations of wild sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon.
“Pinks, the new pike,” dipnetter Doug O’harra joked on the Kenai Friday where the pinks were almost as abundant as the sockeye and in many cases as bi or bigger, an oddity.
“During 1990–2015, hatchery salmon represented approximately 40 percent of the total biomass of adult and immature salmon in the ocean,” Seattle scientist Greg Ruggerone and Canadian colleague James Irvine wrote in a paper published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries in April. “Density‐dependent effects are apparent, and carrying capacity may have been reached….”
Ruggerone is among a group of scientists beginning to question the whole idea of ranching the ocean with hatchery salmon, but many a commercial fisherman and dipnetter in Alaska is heard to suggest that the way to turn around a sockeye shortage that began last year and accelerated greatly this year is to build hatcheries.