Backed by the desire to protect wild salmon, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association continues to push the Alaska Board of Fisheries toward a thorough examination of Prince William Sound salmon hatcheries, but there are good reasons to ponder whether the action is in the best interests of the group’s constituency of anglers and personal-use dipnetters.
The KRSA wants robust sockeye returns to the Kenai, but the 250,000 or more anglers and personal-use dipnetters all around Cook Inlet might actually benefit most from fewer sockeye returning to the Kenai. The reasons why are complex but outlined below.
Cook Inlet’s 1,300-permitted commercial fishermen, who have the most to lose if sockeye numbers stay low as they have been for the past two years, appear generally uninterested in the question of whether industrial-level production of hatchery pink salmon in the Sound might be depressing sockeye salmon returns to the Kenai either because of food competition or increased predation.
Commercial fishermen are generally willing to dismiss any potential problems based on a state fishery research biologist’s observation that correlation is not causation. And they generally do not see any warning in a peer-reviewed scientific study that has already concluded large numbers of hatchery fish in the Sound are pushing down sockeye returns to the Copper River.
A study team led by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist “Evaluating signals of oil spill impacts, climate, and species interactions in Pacific herring and Pacific salmon populations in Prince William Sound and Copper River, Alaska,” last year found that “all sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns. While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.
“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas,” they wrote. “Pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the Northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular.”
Nobody has a clue as to what happens to the nearly 700 million PWS hatchery fry, and hundreds of millions more PWS wild fry and smolt, and Copper sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon smolts once they move into the Gulf of Alaska.
No one even knows for sure the route the young fish follow to move west to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, but one of the scientists involved in the Exxon Valdez study said the movement of the spilled Exxon oil would be a good proxy for the movement of young fish carried by Gulf currents.
A lot of that oil ended up on the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula north of Kodiak. If PWS fry and smolt go where the oil went, they could end up mixed in with the hundreds of millions of sockeye, coho, Chinook, pink and chum salmon fry and smolt moving out of Cook Inlet with unknown results.
Good intentions have pushed the KRSA to take on the task of pressuring the Fish Board and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for more information as to whether Alaskans are losing favored sockeye salmon in exchange for low-value pinks due to competition for food or because of predation in the big Gulf mixing zone off the mouth of the Kenai.
It is a strange situation given that there is, ironically, a good argument – a very good argument – to be made that continued reduced runs of sockeye to the Kenai – if properly managed – would actually benefit anglers and dipnetters throughout the state’s heavily populated Southcentral region surrounding the Anchorage metropolitan area.
This summer’s Inlet run was mismanaged, leading to an early closure of the dipnet fishery, unnecessary restrictions on the sport fishery and, as a number of retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists have pointed out, a widespread belief the Kenai sockeye run was quote-unquote “late.”
But the fish weren’t really late.
As the run was trickling to an end in August, much was made of the oddity of the state sonar on the Kenai counting more sockeye entering the river in that month than in July, but the sonar count alone distorts the nature of the overall sockeye return. The distortion was, unfortunately, repeated in a story here at the end of August stating this year’s run appeared to be the latest on record.
That conclusion ignored the Inlet’s commercial catch of 814,000 sockeye, nearly all of which came prior to July 23 and the bulk of which came even earlier than that. A significant portion of those sockeye were likely bound for the Kasilof River, which saw a healthy return of sockeye this year.
But if even half of the catch is counted as Kenai fish, the midpoint of the Kenai return shifts significantly, and the run becomes not late but simply weak.
The Kenai sonar counted 452,747 sockeye into the river as of July 31. If another 400,000 had been allowed to escape the commercial fishery (this is the reason fishery managers refer to salmon returns as “escapements”), that number would have risen to 850,000.
That is about 350,000 fish more than entered the river in August. Had management shifted away from early harvest to later harvest and still allowed the final escapement into the river to reach the 1,034,325, end-of-season count, the Kenai would have ended up with more than 80 percent of the return in-river by the end of July.
Another 400,000 or more fish in-river in July would also have boosted harvests in both the Kenai sport and personal-use dipnet fisheries, and there would have been no reason for closures of those fisheries in late July.
Early restrictions on the commercial fleet might also have helped as many as 100,000 additional Susitna River coho salmon escape the commercial fishery to reach streams in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
As it was, commercial fishing restrictions forced by the weak run of Kenai sockeye this year was a huge boost for the Mat-Su, which saw strong runs of coho – or silvers as they are often called – to Susitna tributaries.
Before the Little Susitna River weir flooded and quit counting fish for the year on Aug. 7, it had already passed more than 7,500 coho – more than three-times as many as by the same date in 2017 and almost twice as many as by the same date in 2016.
The Little Su is the most-popular, road-accessible coho salmon stream in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The Deshka River, a tributary to the main stem Susitna River, is the most popular boat-accessible stream in what Alaskans call “The Valley.”
High water was a problem there, too, but by the time the weir was shut down early on Aug. 29, the escapement count was at 12,933 – more than 2,000 fish above the minimum goal of 10,200 and about twice as many silvers as at the same time in 2016.
Inlet harvests of Kenai sockeye have long been the tail that shakes the dog of all Inlet fisheries, and there has never been any doubt that when commercial fisheries in the upper Inlet are restricted to protect Kenai sockeye, MatSu Valley anglers emerge as big winners.
It is counter-intuitive to think that fewer fish could be a good thing, but when it comes to Kenai sockeye and the sport and personal-use fisheries around the Inlet that could well be the case if the fishery is properly managed.
The latter is, of course, a big if.
Reigning in the commercial harvest to match the number of fish available would first require state fishery managers accept that they are no longer managing for a harvest goal of 2.8 million sockeye per year – the 10-year average – but for something more on the order of 1.3 million – the average for the last two years – to 1.5 million.
The agency would also need to abide by what fisheries biologists call “constant escapement management” to maintain a steady flow of fish into the Kenai to mimic the natural shape of salmon runs that build to a peak and then taper. Constant escapement has long been considered the best management practice for a number of reasons, including a big one.
“Escapement-return theory predicts the extinction of weak stocks in mixed-stock salmon fisheries managed under a common, constant harvest rate to achieve the maximum sustained yield from the collective stocks,” retired state fisheries Doug Eggers observed 25 years ago in outlining a plan for “Robust Harvest Policies for Pacific Salmon Fisheries.” “However this result does not apply to mixed stock fisheries managed under a contact escapement policy.”
Cook Inlet is a huge mixed-stock fishery which has always complicated management, especially given that the commercial fishery is driven by large annual returns of sockeye to the Kenai.
Smaller sockeye returns to the Kenai would actually serve to make the job of fisheries managers easier if they were willing to accept the need to manage for a smaller Kenai run from the very start of the commercial season.
The end result could well benefit anglers and dipnetters if the management for a smaller run force state managers to limit early commercial fishing in the Inlet. In this scenario, reduced returns could actually result in more salmon in Kenai and Matanuska-Susitna rivers in July and early August, and certainly – if properly managed – no less.
Even if all non-commercial fishermen got out of the deal was the same number of salmon better managed, they would win from hatchery-induced reductions of sockeye because the state would move closer to the end of the long-running Cook Inlet fish wars.
Why? Because proper management of smaller Kenai run sizes would result in lower commercial harvests making the Inlet commercial fishery less and less profitable.
The inevitable result of falling profits would be more commercial gillnetters abandoning the fishery. Many of them are already hobbyists and stop fishing when the fishing is bad.
As the commercial fishery settled in at a new, lower production level, some fishermen would be expected to permanently abandon the fishery, and the political pressure placed on the state Fish Board to maintain maximum commercial harvests in the Inlet would correspondingly begin to fade.
It’s nice that the KRSA believes in wild salmon and wants to ensure they don’t decline due to competition from hatchery fish, but oddly enough, that view might run opposite to what is economically and politically best for the organization’s supporters.
Welcome to the strange and twisted world of Alaska fisheries management.