Sockeye crisis

kenai empty

Commercial fishing boats were at anchor, processing facilities idle and the Kenai River almost deserted with a sockeye salmon gone missing/Kenai City webcam

In a move unprecedented since the salmon-short days of the 1970s in the 49th state, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has halted commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and nearly all other fishing for Kenai River sockeye salmon in an effort to meet a Kenai spawning goal.


Whether any state fishery managers will end up fired when the dusts settles remains to be seen although the state agency has long been proud of a position voiced by its first commissioner, Andy Anderson:

“Gentlemen, the governor has instructed me to return the salmon runs to their former abundance regardless of the pain that is inflicted on the people. I’m charging each one of you to make sure every stream in your district is filled to the maximum spawning capability. Now, if you allow an overescapement, depriving the fishermen of their livelihood, you can expect to be criticized. But on a personal level, gentlemen, I want you to understand that if you allow an underescapement, you can expect to be fired.”

The state is at the moment in danger of underescaping its most famous salmon river. 

Recognizing that, state commercial fishery biologists today put themselves in position to be attacked for reducing the income of commercial fishermen, but stuck to the principle of meeting the goal of ensuring salmon escape commercial fisheries in order to reach  spawning grounds.

Fishery managers conceded in an emergency order closing Inlet fishing for the “foreseeable future” that there are surplus, Kasilof River-bound sockeye available to be caught, but added that there is no way to catch them without also killing Kenai sockeye.

Gillnets fish dirty in that they cannot select for specific runs of salmon or for specific species. They can only select for size, a problem in fisheries where sockeye, coho (silver), chum and pink salmon from a variety of rivers sometimes come in similar sizes.

Selective fishing zone

Biologists had hoped they could clean the sockeye catch by limiting the gillnets to a small section of the Inlet  within 600 feet of the mean, high tide mark south of the mouth of the Kasilof early this summer. But they found out this week that the plan didn’t work.

Genetic sampling of the salmon caught there early in July showed that a significant number of  them – sometimes as much as half – were non-Kasilof fish.

“The proportion of the harvest that was estimated to be Kasilof River sockeye salmon was 68 percent on July 18 and 50 percent from the combined dates of July 26 and 28,” the Department reported. “Other Cook Inlet stocks made up 5 percent of the harvest on July 18 and 22 percent on July 26 and 28.

“The stock composition of the harvest was approximately 28 percent Kenai River sockeye salmon for both sample periods.”

With the Kenai River only halfway to its in-river goal for sockeye, the Department said, it couldn’t afford to lose such a high percentage of a Kenai sockeye in the Kasilof fishery. Biologists conceded the closure was likely to result in the Kasilof-Tustumena Lake system exceeding its biological escapement goal of 340,000 sockeye, but added that “achieving the lower end of the Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goal shall take priority over not exceeding the upper end of the Kasilof River optimum escapement goal,” which tops out at 390,000 sockeye.

The action came at the same time the Department closed sockeye angling in almost the entire Kenai drainage. The sole exception was at the Russian River – a major, sockeye producing tributary to the drainage.

The Department action followed by only a matter of days a meeting between Kenai commercial fishermen and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker during which Walker criticized Fish and Game’s past management and promised to try to get commercial fishermen more salmon now or  in the future. A video of that entire meeting can be found here. 

There is no way to put more fish in the nets of commercial fishermen now. And the only way to put more fish in the commercial fishery in the future is to take fish away from anglers whose spending supports Kenai tourism businesses as dependent on the fish as the commercial fishermen, or further restrict personal-use dipnetters who fish to fill their freezers. The tourism businesses are expected to be hard hit by today’s sockeye closure that exempted only one, small part of the Peninsula.

The Russian River fly-fishing-only area near Cooper Landing was left open to anglers with the Russian already almost two-thirds of its way to a minimum escapement goal of 30,000 late-run sockeyes. More than 19,000 sockeye had passed through a weir upstream from the sport fishery as of Thursday.

Last year at this time, less than half as many sockeye had entered the system by the same date on the way to hitting an eventual run size past the weir of 45,000. There haven’t been 19,000 fish through the Russian weir by July 31 since 2009 when the run returned more than 80,000.

The river underlines the difference in difficulty between managing what are called “terminal” fisheries and mixed-stock fisheries. Fish and Game could allow a harvest at the Russian because anglers there fish only Russian River stocks. The Department can’t allow a harvest in the Inlet because there is no way to prevent that mixed-stock fishery from harvesting now-threatened Kenai fish.

Why the Russian is doing so well and the Kenai so poorly is a question biologists will spend months trying to sort out and might never answer. So, too, the situation at Hidden Creek, another Kenai tributary.

The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association runs a Hidden Lake hatchery program designed to boost Kenai returns. So far this year, only 584 sockeye have made it up Hidden Creek into the lake.

The lake has a 30,000 sockeye escapement goal. It was not met last year. Fewer than 10,000 sockeye made it back, but that was better than 2016 when less than 1,300 showed up. The fishery has fallen short of the goal in eight of the last 10 years, according to a CIAA report.

The hatchery has done nothing to boost production in the most productive sockeye system in the Cook Inlet region. It has produced so few fish that their number is lost in the margin of error for the state’s fish-counting sonar on the region’s biggest sockeye producing river.

A weaker than normal return of sockeye was expected this year, but the forecast still came in at 4.6 million with an expected harvest of 2.6 million, about 900,000 fish under the 10-year average. And almost 2 million fish over what looks to be the season-long harvest this year.

Fishery managers allowed an early harvest of about 650,000 sockeye even though there were signs of sockeye returns failing regionwide.

Managers finally hit the panic button on July 23 when the usually,  highly efficient driftnet fleet harvested less than 32,500 sockeye in the Inlet.  The fishing was so bad that day some drifters quit fishing early and returned to port at what should have been the peak of the season.








3 replies »

  1. Fishing in SouthCentral is a lot like trying to sweep water with a broom. When you shut down a fishery, any fishery, the participants will take their business elsewhere. Kenai is shut down? No problemo. Bird is now getting hammered. The only good news in all of this is that with commfish being shut down, silvers will make it into UCI for the rest of the month. But it’s gonna be crowded, guys. Cheers –

  2. This highlights the problem we are having with our fish in the Susitna, Yentna and Skwentna drainages. As soon as the Kenai meets its in river goals they open up the inlet for full time for commercial fishing which by catches these rivers already stressed Red population. This year if everything in Cook Inlet were being dictated by the Kasilof River then it would stress the Kenai run even further. Fish policy based on one river system is putting all other rivers in jeopardy. Because the Kenai run is low then the Kasilof will now have an over abundance of fish. Very poor management practice.

    • What’s even poorer us that no management plan even exists for the late run kings in the Kasilof. That is perhaps one of the saddest part of this whole political fisheries mess. An entire run of fish swept under the carpet for the almighty commercial sockeye dollar.

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