Commercial fishermen were back at work in Cook Inlet on Thursday in an unprecedented effort to mop up some of the remnants of a late return of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River.
About 4.6 million of the prized fish were forecast to hit Upper Cook Inlet this year. Fewer than 2.7 million have so far been accounted for to date: a little over 800,000 – a large number of them Kasilof River fish – caught by commercial fishermen; about 1.3 million that escaped into the Kasilof and Kenai rivers to spawn; 200,000 to 300,000 thought to be caught by anglers and personal used dipnet fishermen; and maybe 200,000 to 300,000 that made it up the Susitna-Yentna River drainage in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage.
The Kenai – arguably the state’s most famous river – looked headed for disaster in late July when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed commercial, personal-use dipnet and sport fisheries for sockeye because of a weak return.
The New York Times just days ago lamented the “startling disruptions” in the fishery, but an unusual surge of August sockeye had by then helped the Kenai meet its in-river goal. Fish and Game on Tuesday announced the river’s rod-and-reel fishery was reopening.
Based on what looks now to have been a nine-day late return, state commercial fisheries biologist Brian Marston on Thursday estimated 45,000 or so sockeye might still be in the Inlet on their way to the river.
He didn’t, however, expect many commercial fishermen to take the opportunity to head out to try to find them. Most of the 573 people who own limited entry permits allowing them to drift gillnet for salmon in the Inlet have called it quits after a year that can only be described as bad.
Marston expected a catch of maybe 5,000 fish for the 12-hour, Thursday opening. Most years that would be considered tiny, but this isn’t like most years.
“Five-thousand sockeye spread out over 50 boats equals approximately 100 sockeye each,” he messaged. “I had openers this year where many caught less than that.”
The opening was expected to draw objections from sport fishermen, not so much because it happened but because of the precedent it set. The commercial fishery in the Inlet usually shuts down on Aug. 15 when the catch of sockeye starts to plummet and the catch of coho, or what Alaskans usually call silvers, starts to rise.
Earlier commercial fishing closures this year because of the lack of sockeye, however, allowed a lot of coho that would have been caught to escape gill-snagging driftnets and make it into the Kenai and the many rivers of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley to the north.
Given the situation, Marston said, the state agency decided the unusual late opening was warranted.
“The optimum escapement goal for Kasilof River (sockeye) has been exceeded,” he explained. “The in-river goal for Kenai river is achieved.
“Coho stocks in northern Cook Inlet in Deshka (River), Little Su (River), and Fish Creek, have all been projected to make or exceed coho goals, and the sport limits have been raised.
“Given that they have achieved the escapement goal, I feel that opening one gear group’s fishery (drift) , for one day, in an area (part of which was already open by regulation normally) to get at stocks of late Kenai and Kasilof sockeye as well as other species, is sustainable for sockeye, coho and pink salmon.”
Strong August returns of sockeye to the Kenai are not unknown, but they are unusual. The historic midpoint of the sockeye run is July 23, and it has only slid past the end of July twice in the last 37 years.
As the situation stands at the moment, with the in-river sonar count now topping 950,000, Aug. 1 would end up being the midpoint for 2018. But if another 40,000 sockeye show up before the sonar is scheduled to be shut down on Aug. 24 that could shift to Aug. 2.
Why the fish showed up late to the Kenai, as well as to the fabled Copper River to the south, remains a mystery. The Copper, like the Kenai, lagged far behind escapement goals in May and June, and as a result fisheries were closed.
Returns slowly began creep upward toward goals in July, however, and the in-river fisheries were reopened. By the time the Copper sonar was turned off on July 28, more than 700,000 sockeye – just short of the top of the optimum goal range at 750,000 – had made it into the river.
What happened after that is unclear, but dipnetters who hit the river in August – when the dipnet fishery is usually pretty much kaput – were reporting some phenomenal fishing.
“Best fishing we’ve seen in years!” Mark Hem reported on the Hem Charters Facebook page Monday. “Last Thursday, Friday, & Saturday everyone limited out or got what they wanted. One day we brought in over 1,500 fish.”
Hem runs a small fishing charter business out of Chitina, a community of fewer than 130 people on the Edgerton Highway about 250 miles east of Anchorage. The community is Alaska famous for the “Where the Hell is Chitina” bumper sticker spawned by the dipnetters who flock there.
Hem’s business is limited by the fact the dipnet fishery is restricted to Alaska residents only. At the fishery’s peak, more than 10,000 people obtained permits, but the number this year is expected to be half that or less.
Many reportedly decided to forego the $15 cost of the permit when the commercial fishery at the mouth of the river started off slow and went downhill (there were only three fishing periods before the season closed for the year) and the sonar failed to start clicking.
By then, the handwriting was on the wall for in-river subsistence, dipnet and sport fisheries.
When the in-river fisheries started closing in early June, the sockeye run was almost 100,000 fish behind the goal for the date, and state fishery managers were saying they expected the dipnet fishery to remain closed all summer. That dissuaded many a dipnetter.
So, too, the slow sockeye fishing on the Kenai – 160 road miles south of Anchorage – in July. The City of Kenai, which has a money-making business renting parking spots and campsites to dipnetters, reported its revenue this year dropped $172,000 from the more than a half-million dollars it took in the year before.
The city had been projecting revenues of $578,000 this year, but collected only $375,000. Still, the dipnetters who were persistent reported they got fish. The fishing was difficult, but not a disaster.
The same could not be said for the commercial fishery. Even though prices were reported to be up over $1.50 per pound, the value of this year’s catch is expected to come in at a fraction of what the fishery was worth last year when commercial fishermen harvested 1.7 million sockeye worth almost $20 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Few of the 1,000 or so drift and setnet permit holders who actually fished made enough to support themselves. The average return was under $20,000 per fisherman for the season. The commercial fishery has already become a hobby for most of the fishermen, and if this year is a harbinger of what is to come, it’s possible most professional fishermen in the Inlet may disappear.