Last week commercial fishermen from Cook Inlet were in court arguing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had unfairly cut their fishing time to protect a struggling run of world-famous Kenai River king salmon.
On Sunday, the state agency announced the king run is not going to reach the minimum in-river goal of 13,500 big fish and closed by emergency order today’s regularly scheduled, fishing period for commercial setnetters.
Protests are expected.
Commercial fishermen argue it is unfair to deprive them of the opportunity to catch plentiful sockeye just to protect struggling kings. In court last week, an attorney for the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund even went so far as to suggest the state is violating federal law by favoring a weak king (Chinook) stock over a strong sockeye (red salmon) stock.
Only 9,587 kings had entered the river as of Saturday, according to the state’s in-river sonar. The sport fishery for kings closed at midnight Wednesday. The personal-use dipnet fishery ended the same day, but the dipnetters had been banned from keeping kings since the July opening of their season.
Computer projections of the king run indicate it peaked early and likely won’t meet the minimum goal even with the closure. State fishery managers have been struggling with sputtering returns since the start of the decade, but have not missed an escapement goal since shifting the goal downward to 15,000 in 2013 when a new and better sonar was placed in the river, and then to 13,500 salmon bigger than 34 inches in length in 2017.
Less equals more
The latter change was intended to ensure the sonar didn’t mistakenly count oversize sockeye as undersize kings. The belief is the 13,500 “big-fish” standard actually puts more kings in the river than the old 15,000 goal.
When the state Board of Fisheries first started examining the spawning standard, state fisheries biologists SteveFleischman and Tim McKinley warned of continuing problems.
Nature – not humans – is the problem, they added:
“Despite the small runs of recent years, a comprehensive analysis of stock productivity, capacity, and yield failed to find evidence that the stock has been over-exploited,” ie. overfished.
But there was more, and it was not good:
“The 2012 total run (28,550) was the smallest on record, representing nearly a fourfold decline from peak abundance in 2004 (99,690). Similar declines have been documented for other Chinook salmon stocks statewide. Thus far, there is little evidence that the decline will soon be reversed. Based on the current analysis of historical data, escapements of 15,000–30,000 Kenai River late-run Chinook salmon can provide yields of approximately 35,000 fish.”
Chinook returns have generally been struggling all around the Gulf of Alaska and south to Puget Sound. Scientists are clueless as to why, but some have suggested the big kings could be losing out to more adaptable pink, sockeye and chum salmon as the North Pacific warms.
Those species have, in general, been flourishing, though there are hints of a something of Gulf of Alaska pink salmon slump this year. Prince William Sound commercial, pink fisheries that should be in full swing at this point are largely shut down for lack of fish.
When the fish don’t show, fishery managers don’t have much choice but to shut down fishing to ensure enough spawners to maintain future runs or risk over-fishing – ie. over-exploitation – kicking fisheries into a downward spiral.
The good news for the Kenai is that it’s chockablock full of sockeyes at the moment. Rod and reel fishing is good to excellent from Soldotna to Skilak Lake, according to Fish and Game, and the daily bag limit has been boosted to six fish.
Commercial fishermen argue “over-escapement” will result due the commercial fishing closures, and because of it the sky will fall on everyone. But an in-depth, 2007 state investigation of over-escapement threw a lot of cold water on that argument.
The study found over-escapement can be a problem, but for the problem to be serious requires “consecutive over-escapements that were greater than twice the upper escapement goal range.”
To get to that point, the Kenai sonar would need to clock at least 2.7 million sockeye for consecutive years. The escapement goal maximum is 1.2 million. To get there requires at least 1.5 million salmon past the in-river counter to account for the 300,000 to 350,000 caught above the counter by anglers, according to Fish and Game biologists.
Last year, which was not a good year for commercial or non-commercial fishermen, more than 1 million salmon escaped the commercial fishery and made it past the sonar counter in the river. But once the sport harvest of 300,000 to 350,000 is deducted, only 650,000 to 700,000 sockeye escaped all fisheries to spawn.
It is possible, maybe even probable, the Kenai was over-exploited last year, which could transform an excess of sockeye in-river this year from a negative to a positive.
It’s easy to see why Superior Court Judge Jason Gist, who heard the CIFF suit last week, might want to avoid usurping the authority of state fishery managers to do it himself.