Shades of ’18

grim picture

The grim picture of Cook Inlet sockeye catches in one graph/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Along the southern edge of the Bering Sea, fishermen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay are enjoying yet another banner year, but to the east there are hints of the disaster of 2018.

The commercial fishery for fabled Copper River king and sockeye salmon was allowed only seven short openings in May and June before it was closed for the year with a catch of less than 100,000 fish.

By the seventh opening, the fishing was so obviously bad that only about 20 percent of the fleet based in the port of Cordova at the southern edge of Prince William Sound even bothered to put out nets.

Upriver there were enough fish to meet the needs of spawning – plus fisheries for subsistence, personal-use dipnetters and anglers – but the run overall could only be described as weak and under forecast.

To the north of the Sound, a similar situation is now developing in Cook Inlet, a ground zero for Alaska fish wars between salmon harvesters of different sorts even when they are lots of fish.

The Upper Cook Inlet commercial harvest of sockeye – the prize fish in the Inlet –  was, as of today, ess than 600,000 fish, about a third of the preseason forecast of a harvest of 1.7 million. The central district catch of 563,000 of those fish is less than 45 percent of the five-year average for the date.

The hope and expectation are that the catch will grow significantly in the days ahead, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday put out an “advisory announcement” downsizing the expected return of sockeye to the Kenai River from 2.2 million to 1.9 million.

The Kenai is the elephant in the Inlet’s waters, and the revised forecast is based on an optimistic projection that the fish “will likely be two to five days late in run timing.”

Fishery managers concede that the return could fall well short of the latest best-estimate if that is not the case.

Cross your fingers

Bert Lewis, the regional supervisor for commercial fisheries, said Friday it is still too early to be positive of anything. He was unwilling to take a guess at how far under the preseason forecast the return might fall.

“We’re going to give it a few more days yet,” he said while sounding slightly less positive than the official announcement.

“We’ve seen the Copper was largely a run failure,” he admitted.

Along with the lagging commercial catch, the entry of sockeye into the Keni has been low. The escapement as of Friday was near 433,000 at a time when historically about 55 percent of the return would be in the river.

The in-river goal is 1 million to 1.2 million sockeye.

Ray Beamesderfer, an independent fisheries consultant who has among his clients the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA), expected the goal to be easily met – mainly because the commercial set gillnet fisheries nearest the mouth of the Kenia have been closed by the state to protect a dismal return of late-run Kenai Chinook, the big “king” salmon for which Alaska is famous.

The return of the early-run kings to the Kenai was a disaster. The late-run looks better in terms of the actual number of fish, but it is lagging way behind its escapement goal.

As of Friday, only 5,163 “big fish” had passed the sonar counter on the Kenai. The in-river goal is 15,000 to 30,000. Fish and Game badly missed the minimum last year and is hoping to avoid a replay this year.

If the run is on time, the latest projects put the return at about 11,900 – near identical to the disaster of ’18. The numbers improve if the run is late, which is everyone’s great hope.

If it is a day late, the projection jumps by 800 fish to 12,700 total, and if it is three-days late, the projection rises to within a few-hundred fish of the minimum goal.

As Lewis observed of Kenai sockeye, the numbers are low but so close to the edge between bad and simply not-so-good that it is impossible to make a firm prediction on outcomes.

Still, it is close enough to the disaster line that the state has closed the Kenai to all angling, even catch-and-release fishing, for kings, shut down the setnet fisheries for miles north and south of the mouth of the Kenai, and pushed the commercial drift gillnet fleet a mile to a mile and a half offshore.


When the drifters are moved away from shore into deeper water, nearly all the Inlet kings swim under their nets and the fleet’s by-catch drops to a handful of fish. They reported a catch of only seven during the last opening of the drift fishery on Thursday. 

The sockeye harvest was just shy of 20,000 and worked out to an average of fewer than 83 fish per boat. With the fish reported to be running small at an average weight of less than 5 pounds and prices down a reported 25 percent from the $1.85 per pound of last year, it was not a great payday.

Commercial fishermen on average grossed about the same for their sockeye as the $600 per week those left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic have been collecting from the government. By the time expenses were covered, they probably netted half of that.

They did get a bonus in the catch of 33,000 pink salmon, but with those fish weighing only about 3 pounds each and going for about 25 cents per pound, the entire catch would be worth only about $25,000 or around $100 per boat on average.

Few are likely to be making it through the winter on their Inlet earnings for the summer.

The only positive news is that most Inlet drifters are hobbyists who have other jobs – or did before the pandemic – that support them. They fish the Inlet for extra income and the fun of it, even if the work of shaking a lot of low-value pinks from a gillnet might not sound like fun to most people.

Why sockeye and Chinook returns are weak is a big unknown.

All sorts of possibilities have been suggested from competition with pink salmon now at record numbers in the North Pacific to over-escapement of sockeye into the Kenai, to predation by marine mammals and other predators along with the Blob, global warming, interceptions in fisheries off Kodiak Island, and more.

It’s a complicated problem, but what is obvious is that Cook Inlet – unlike Bristol Bay – is not producing sockeye salmon the way it once did.










8 replies »

  1. I am confused – is it a billion hatchery pinks competing for food sources or is it all Global Warming/Climate Change that is having an impact? They talk about a different boogeyman every other day and I am referring to the crunchies.

    • Good question. Whether a variable is positive or negative is hard to separate. Here is an example. If you own just one stock it is easy to follow. Own 100 it is harder to figure out how they interact and respond to each other. My speculation is that both are having a negative impact. Large releases of pink salmon without understanding how they impact the rearing environment and their role as predators is criminal. There is no doubt temperature can be a negative in both freshwater and the ocean depending on magnitude. But it can be a positive depending on magnitude of change. I do not have the data to say one way or another but ADFG should be putting resources to this question. ADFG is not doing biology and is more focused on people management and fishing opportunities

  2. Thinking the annual release in Alaskan waters is 1.8 billion Pink fry, maybe 5 Billion counting Russia, Japan and others. How could anyone think this is being done without consequence? Unfortunately the non profit conservation organizations are focused on Pebble which has much more sex appeal for fund raising. Amazed that the Cordova fishing community, who have been hosed by the Pink releases, are not up in arms. They have had a grand total of 10 or 11 short openers for Reds.
    In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez these “non profit” Pink hatcheries were created without any thought, much less an EIS.

  3. By the time the salmon season is over we will most likely have more information pointing towards a two year cycle for sockeye in PWS and CI unless we get a really late push. Why would a salmon that isn’t on a two year cycle start following the only other salmon on a two year cycle, and why wouldn’t that same two year cycle impact BB? Abundant hatchery pinks one year and the next a crash in sockeye in these hatchery areas…strange.

  4. There is no doubt the Kenai River sockeye return is not great. Here are a few thoughts to consider.
    1. The low commercial harvest is due to a poorer run but also regulatory limitations that keep the drift fleet from fishing inlet wide. When the set nets are closed one has to use the drift fleet more and at a time when they are efficient. The present Commissioner is only fishing them 2 days a week in restricted areas. So basically the drift fleet is not going to have a good harvest. With the run projections the commercial harvest should be around 1-1.4 million which is poor.
    2. The poor sockeye return may have a freshwater component. The brood year tables indicate 1.4 million fish spawned in 2015 the parent year for the majority of the return. If the run comes in at 1.9 to 2.2 million the brood year barely replaced itself. That brood year produced 29 million fall fry (25 million age 0) That is decent production.but the fish were only 0.8 grams. That is a low weight going into winter. When that happens freshwater mortality over winter can be very high- much greater than 50%.
    3. When you get poor overwinter survival not many smolt go out and if the ocean environment is also stressing one gets poor returns.
    4. ADF&G needs to figure out what they want for fry numbers and size in the Kenai rearing lakes to optimize the freshwater survival and adjust goals appropriately. Mark Willette who took over my job when I retired has prepared the data to do just that. Unfortunately Mark became ill and has recently passed away. He will be missed.
    So one has to look at the whole picture to figure out the pressing question of why. Unfortunately for chinook the data set is not available like for sockeye.

  5. The Dept will come up with some reasons for the low abundance in Cook Inlet. It will mostly settle on “ocean conditions” or other factors of which the Dept has no control.
    Last to be considered will be factors such as putting hundreds of millions of hatchery Pink salmon into waters and the likelihood that doing so limits food resources for other species like the Sockeye. Or the likelihood that the Dept managers over a period of time while favoring the Commercial sector have allowed over harvest or otherwise mismanaged the harvest with its emergency order authority.
    Nobody likes to admit that they were wrong. And, to be sure, Dept staff do not get promoted or receive pay increases when they make errors in judgment. So the default position always taken when addressing depleted runs of salmon is” it’s not our fault”.
    Upper Cook Inlet should be looked at far differently than BB. There are literally more than half the state’s population within an approx 2 1/2 drive to the Kenai River most whom only want to provide food security for their families. BB on the other hand has very few non commercial harvesters to contend with.
    If the Dept and the BOF were to manage for the many instead of the few and recognize that the commercial harvest of salmon in the inlet is no longer the highest and best use of the resource Alaska would be far better off. The economics have favored other users than commercial gill netters for several decades, yet the Com sector has always won the political fish wars. It is time for a change.

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