After two years of dismal Chinook returns to the Kenai River, the state’s most famous salmon stream is this year on the way to setting a new record for dismal as a long, downward spiral continues.
Long gone are the days of daily battles with monster “kings” as Alaskans call these salmon. Increasingly a distant memory is the world-record, 97-pound, 4-ounce fish the size of a small boy that the late Les Anderson wrestled from the gray-green glacial stream in May 1985.
Despite the absence of dams on the river that drains much of the Kenai Peninsula, despite habitat that could only be described as pristine when compared to the Pacific Northwest, despite severe restrictions on both commercial and sport fisheries, the Kenai kings are following the Chinook trend of the Western Pacific Ocean down, down, down.
David Welch and associates at Kintama Research in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, late last year reported a 65 percent decline in Chinook survival along much of the North American West Coast.
The study did not cover streams farther north in Alaska because of a lack of complete data on which to draw conclusions, but those waters appear to be following the coastal trend.
While the Kenai is among the hardest hit by falling marine survival, other monitored streams track the fall in productivity.
The smallish Anchor River near the southern end of the Kenai saw 9,000 to 12,000 kings per year making it back into the river in the early 2000s. Annual returns are now half to a third of that.
The Ayakulik River, a southwest Kodiak Island stream long famous among fly fishermen, witnessed returns of more than 8,000 to more than 24,000 in the early 2000s.
Only 2,402 of the big fish – about half of the minimum escapement goal – made it back to the river last year, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) data, and though the return is slightly better this year, it looks certain to miss the minimum goal once again.
The Ayakulik run traditionally peaks in late June, though fish continue to trickle in through the early weeks of August. Last year, 31 came back in August, the year before nine, and the year before that 10.
The in-river count for the Ayakulik as of yesterday was 2,943. The escapement goal is 4,800 to 8,400. The river is unlikely to reach even two-thirds of the minimum hoped-for spawners.
The situation on the Kenai is equally grim.
Kenai River Chinook run projection/Ray Beamesderfer, Fish Science Solutions
“At the normal 58 percent point in the run, sonar counts to date project a record low number of 9,700 (kings),” Ray Beamesderfer of Fish Science Solutions messaged Friday. Beamesderfer is a widely respected, Oregon-based fishery consultant who has been monitoring Kenai returns for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association for 20 years.
He has never witnessed a return as bad as this one.
“Chances of meeting the lower optimum-escapement goal are practically zero based on historical variation in run timing,” he added. “Chances of meeting the lower sustainable-escapement goal are less than 5 percent.
“This will be the third year in a row that the lower goal was missed.”
It remains possible this could change given that the run continues through August. Miracles do sometimes happen, but they are called miracles because they are exceedingly rare.
The Kenai sonar count is now more than 1,000 Chinook behind where it was at this date last year, and fewer than 4,000 kings entered the river in August 2020.
The final escapement count for 2020 was but 76 percent of the optimum escapement goal despite all the restrictions placed on fishermen to try to get fish in the river. Similar restrictions have been in place this year.
Commercial fishing with set gillnets around the mouth of the river was restricted and then closed, helping to limit the reported bycatch of kings to fewer than 1,300 fish, according to Fish and Game data.
Harvests in the commercial fishery peaked near 22,000 Chinook in the early- to mid-2000s and have generally been falling ever since in large part because of state fishing restrictions aimed at trying to meet escapement goals.
They are called escapement goals because they measure the number of fish escaping commercial nets to reach the spawning grounds.
The nets now, however, seem to be significantly less of a problem than nature, although why both the ocean survival and size of Chinook have fallen so dramatically is unclear.
Losers and winners
Warmer water and competition with smaller, voracious and far more productive pink salmon benefiting from better survival in the warmer water is a suspected issue though the state’s chief of fisheries research has dismissed that idea.
Bill Templin contends the data is inadequate to definitively show that Alaska’s pink salmon bonanza – fueled in significant part by hatchery fish – has played a role in the decline of Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon returning to Gulf of Alaska streams.
As of this writing, the 2021 harvest of GOA salmon stands at about 37 million pinks, 10 million sockeye (with about 60 percent of those caught off the Alaska Peninsula in Western Alaska), less than a half-million coho, and 164,000 kings – more than 60 percent of them caught in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery which preys heavily on ocean-migrating Chinook bound for spawning waters in British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon.
The state has forecast the pink harvest for the year will top 124 million – a number once thought a good all-species harvest for the state – with about 49 million of those fish, or near 40 percent, produced by hatcheries.
Alaska banned net-pen fish farming in 1990, but it is heavily into free-range farming or what the state’s commercial fishing industry prefers to call “ranching.”
With the hatchery fish caught in open water by traditional Alaska fisheries, they can be marketed as “wild-caught” Alaska salmon.
That is thought to appeal to consumers who would prefer wild fish to the farmed salmon that now dominate the market. The latter raise salmon to an average size of 8- to 9-pounds to produce filets perfect for grilling.
With wild Alaska sockeye – one of the state’s highest quality fish – steadily shrinking in size, the filets are smaller. Sockeye weights were down to about an average of 5 pounds last year, according to ADF&G, with Prince William Sound sockeye falling to four and a half.
Pinks averaged near three and a half pounds. Many are too small to be fileted, and thus are canned. The prices paid Alaska fishermen reflect the difference between filets, which are considered a premium product, and canned salmon which competes with canned tuna in the market.
Statewide, the price paid fishermen for pinks last year averaged 30 cents per pound, according to ADF&G. Sockeye were worth more than twice as much at 76 cents per pound while cohos with an average weight over six and a half pounds went for an average of $1.17 per pound.
The prices reflect a market that now prefers a wild fish that looks like a farmed fish. Kings, which averaged more than 11 pounds in weight in the commercial fishery, were worth more than $5 per pound on average, but the statewide harvest was down to less than 260,000, a pittance in a fishery totaling 117 million.