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.
“Inriver runs were relatively large during the years 1986–1988, 1993–1995, and 2003–2005; but underwent a persistent decline starting in 2006,” they wrote in a report to the Board.
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:
“Small runs are expected for the near future. Results of the run reconstruction and spawner-recruit analysis suggest that the Kenai River late-run stock has been undergoing a decline in productivity.
“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.
The minimum spawning escapement goal is 700,000.
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.
Almost 200,000 reds went up the Kenai between August 1st and August 4th, less than 800 kings have done the same. Using dipnets will not save the day. Catching kings will obviously not save the day. Using shallower nets will possibly help get kings into the river, but for some reason some of the same people who want to be allowed to fish more refuse to adopt shallower nets so they can fish more.
As a former commercial fisherman I am ashamed that those who are fortunate enough to make a living catching fish will not adapt to help save the king salmon by restricting the depth of their gear which in turn would allow them more fishing time. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Catch fewer kings, catch more reds. Almost 200,000 reds went up the Kenai between August 1st and August 4th, less than 800 kings have done the same…your call commercial fishermen. More kings in the river means more reds for you to catch.
If any professional people with experience are listening please set up a union/ lobby for( all ) subsistence and sport fishers to easily join so we can put pressure on Dunleavy and courts to let Biolgists do their job and manage fisheries to maximize returns and meet governments constitutional obligations. Comm fish had a large part in crashing king runs in Yukon , kuskokwim and uppper Cook Inlet. Even copper kings are fewer . Some of Alaska’s greatest watersheds . An iconic fish ! Unacceptable biological and financial results for a few greedy nearsighted people. Nasty and selfish actions by comm fish. Surely some smart retire can get a group effort going , I’m ready to join. It benefits us all and Alaska’s future.
Chitna Dipnetters has done a great job as a lobby group for subsistence users in Alaska, but I know they have had trouble getting the F&G board to act on their proposals…
Maybe the best thing you could do is work on getting the King Salmon listed as “Endangered” with the feds…any America Citizen can petition to get a species listed.
It is a hard rope to tow though with “Trumpians” behind every desk in Washington these days.
Opinion, I have been around the Alaska Board of Fisheries process for, well, more years than I care to admit. The most effective organization, speaking loudly for salmon and non commercial fishermen, is and always has been the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Full disclosure, I currently contract with them as a Fishery Management Consultant. KRSA is the organization to join.
The BOF allowed comm fish to use dip nets in the lower Yukon when king numbers returning were low. This was so the fishermen could still harvest Chums, but release all kings.
This is more labor intensive and not as efficient as gill nets. But it still allows some harvest for profit and protects a fish stock.
Could this not also work in the Kenia waters?
I have thought many times we should equal the playing field this way in Alaska.
More Alaskans could earn a living using their “dipnets” as well.
End the overharvesting of our resource by Washington state based fishing vessels and bring more income to local economies while ensuring escapements are met.
Seems like a good idea.
It is quite interesting to note that the east side set net commercial sector has been reporting very few Kings being harvested. At the same time the sonar has counted very few Kings passing. Now that the commercial set nets are closed, let’s see how many Kings are counted past the Sonars. My guess is that we will see many more which might lead to a conclusion that the Set net crowd is not reporting most of the Kings caught, and are selling or keeping them. Under reporting and drop out mortality has been going on for many years and the Dept has ignored the problem. Time for the Dept to figure it out. Because for sure it is in the commercial sector’s best interest to under report. Every fish they catch and report is like an additional nail in their fishing coffin.
The majority of the kings caught in the ESSN fishery are small King’s that are not counted by the sonar counter. The average king salmon caught on my site was 16 pounds. Additionally, there are many more rivers and streams that produce King Salmon. Not every king caught in the ESSN fishery is a Kenai King. I chose to fish shallow nets in order to reduce my king harvest and it seems to have worked. I wish there were more protections for the spawning beds in river to stop harassing the kings. Why don’t Kevin Delaney and KRSA do more to work on that issue instead of continuing their attack on the commercial fleet? Oh that’s right, it’s there job to put our industry out of business. The commercial
Fleet can put every king in the river, but if they are yanked off the spawning beds then What’s the point?
The salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet is the most complex to manage of any in the State and that’s when there are enough fish of each species to provide for escapement and at least average harvest. When one very valuable species, late-run kings, is in short supply the situation becomes so much more difficult. The ADFG recognized the potential for shortfall early and from the beginning of the late-run season prohibited bait in the sport fishery, shallowed the set nets and limited set net hours in accordance with the regulations providing for paired restrictions. This year’s king run is a few days early in timing and because of that projections made a few weeks ago appear to be high. Nevertheless the only reason that the commercial fishery had the fairly good season that it has had is because the ADFG put those restrictions (the subject of the commercial fish lawsuit) in place at the beginning of this season and, as a result saved enough kings to get us to this point. Yeah we are going to blow over the top of the in-river goal for Kenai sockeye but that goal is a management objective that is designed to not only provide for the Sustainable Escapement Goal but also to put fish up river for sport harvest and, make certain that a large percentage of even average runs are harvested by the commercial fishery. It is my opinion that this in river goal needs to be raised.
I TOLD YOU SO!