Fishery disaster

A lucky angler with a child-size king salmon of the sort that used to be common in the Kenai River/ADF&G photo


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.

In a peer-reviewed study published in Fish and Fisheries, they documented uniform declines in streams from the north end of the Alaska Panhandle south to Oregon.

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.













29 replies »

  1. To those who missed the point, this isn’t happening in just one river system…it is a problem all over for kings up and down the coast. It isn’t river specific or area specific, it is all over the range. Some thing happen in cycles and we could be in a lower abundance cycle…or…

  2. Perhaps the Jananese nuclear plant contamination into the ocean may also have an impact on migrating fish species… Don’t our North American salmon populations travel all the way around the north Pacific and back? Have any scientific organizations been tracking the spread of nuclear contamination across the Pacific Ocean currents?

  3. My long time (since early 1980s) involvement with (failed) Kenai Chinook salmon management has me placing most of the blame on df&g. here’s why. going back to the 60’s when the first studies were done (by USF&WS) evidence suggested that the overall escapement into the Kenai was composed of (1) main stem spawners and (2) tributary spawners. prior to July 1 (a completely arbitrary date chosen by df&g WAG) the main stem component made up about 20% of the return. after July 1 the majority were main stem fish. here it’s good to recall that Les Anderson’s 97# fish was caught on May 18. for purely convenient (to df&g) reasons a temporally (time) based management model was chosen rather than a spacial model (which could manage for overlapping nature of the fish returns). now 2 things must be considered, first, the most productive main stem miles (spawning per mile) are those miles below the Soldotna bridge (with the exception of about 1 mile around the Killey rio); and, second, df&g’s management strategy has relentlessly focused the angling effort on those miles below the bridge, placing ALL ANGLING PRESSURE on the fish that use this area not just for spawning but for staging. this began with tributary area closures and eventually resulted with closing the entire river above the bridge. none of this is made up or conjectural. it is all available data from both state and fed records. the department has systematically concentrated angling effort on an ever diminishing resource all the while refusing dialog or consideration (of this folly) or other options/proposals over these last 30 years. while df&g will no doubt be given a mulligan because of the ever increasing pressures from loss of open ocean habitats and food chain disruptions from whatever sources, there is no doubt in my mind where the blame rests. and Craig, hell he’s so entrenched with df&g he won’t listen at all. not sure just why but then he’s not the only one seems disinclined to open eyes to something other than the party line. this is the main failure of df&g but not the only one. nice thing about growing old is memory is fading and I don’t get so agitated.. department arrogance is another matter though. I’ll stop now

    • Dennis, you and eric could be onto something with poorly protected spawning bed areas and targeted fish . Something of the sort must be involved. ( though why not other salmon having similar issues?) Good as your thinking is you are mistaken about Craig. Hes a listener . All you have to do is provide enough data in comprehensive format and im sure he will intergrate it if there is merit. Im pretty sure he thinks its a multiple faceted issue. Thanks for sharing the insight. I think you have a point that’s compounded the problem though perhaps only a piece? Craig is probably far more on your side as hes a Numbers guy and wants economic stability. We all fail when parts of economy fail. Perhaps some one can shed more light on the king problems. Great input Dennis and Eric !

      • try not to get me too wrong here. I actually like Craig, had many reasonable conversations with him over the years. I’m not a biologist but knowledge is important to me and if I have an affinity for a subject I intensely study it. so if there’s something I said Craig (or anyone else) wants supporting data for I can provide it. I do not do this stuff any longer but I do have a significant bibliography on the statements I make (actually wrote a white paper back when I was still trying to make inroads with the arrogant fucks what work for df&g). I believe that most of the politically entrenched df&g managers (read that to mean ‘not biologically’ motivated) are unwilling to listen or consider that mistakes may have been made. but then I often digress into non-numbers (subjective) dialog. we have not been successful in any way managing Chinook salmon sustainably. We as a species are so focused on ‘numbers’ backed arguments that we refuse outright common sense suggestions that may fly in the face of (so called solid) science. we seem to be too ready to push these ‘number’s’ games to the brink of crazy to even consider other issues. we cannot even consider in our overall rush to ‘win’ the allocation battle such evidence (that we easily ignore) suggestions we may be on the precipice of disaster (just what is that defined in years, run strength, Ricker?) the dept refuses to discuss motor noise issues, intense activities over spawning fish, water quality issues (habitat division is a joke more worried about culverts than H2O). at one time I was willing to go toe to toe with dept biologists and other interests but then I had to give in to the reality that no one really cares about fish but only what they mean to their notion of bottom line. I wish I could provide a way for the dept to ‘save face’, to do a work around on mistakes they arguably have made but they will not ever do such even if it means ‘killing the goose what laid the golden egg’. Craig cannot, will not, put himself out, to consider there are things that the so called ‘experts’ may be short sighted, ignorant about. after all mom described an X-pert to me when I was a kid: ‘has been spurt under pressure’…………. a digression back to other salmons you mentioned. there are so many significant differences in the life cycles of the various salmons as to make comparisons folly. sockeye in the Kenai are similarly convoluted and may show more distress now. in 1988 thru mid 1990s a biologist named Bendock did studies suggesting the Chinook run into the Kenai peaked on July 17, more recent studies by Reimer suggest this entry pattern has skewed to a peak of August 29, sockeye evaluations and observations suggest the socks have adopted a similar entry pattern following the Chinook salmon (when was it the dept last evaluated this data and considered altering management strategy?) BCs Frasier river a normally 10 million sockeye producer had less than a million last year and is estimated to be even less this year. Chignik Chinook and sockeye runs are not reaching harvestible numbers again. there isn’t a lot of evidence that fish south and east of the Aleutians and AK Peninsula are doing well……. it’s complicated but there are few indications of any improvement unless you live in the Bering Straits, Bristol Bay, etc…………. I get it that hindsight is 20-20 but I just wish Craig and others might consider that if we are to make a difference we need to look at the ‘given’ or give up

    • Not sure about the whole “harassment on the spawning beds” issue. If that were the case, the upper Kenai would be seeing robust returns because zero king fishing is happening there. Also, to say that setnetters are not catching/reporting kings – who knows? There is basically zero enforcement on that fishery. Finally, i believe the answer lies outside of Cook Inlet. We are not meeting escapement goals but we do have returning fish, why is the number so low? My guess is they are not surviving somewhere beyong Cook Inlet. We need to stop the finger pointing and start tagging/tracking fish. Seems the least we can do to save the greatest Kings on the planet.

  4. Alaskans First

    You loose all credibility when you start spewing gibberish about this mythical black market and all the unreported king. Any fisherman not reporting there catch should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, there is zero excuse for this. And the reason fisherman are rarely fined for this is because IT DOES NOT EHXIST!!! There is no black market for kings period. I am very familiar with the bulk of the operations on the most productive beach in the inlet, and there’s no grand conspiracy to hide kings. I also ran a drift boat in the inlet for 5 years. During that time I caught 1 king and that was in the Kasilof terminal fishery while in shallow water and it was reported and delivered. Any true sport fisherman also knows that when you’re trolling for kings in salt water you normally set your down rigger between 40-60’. So why would drifters be loading up on unreported kings when their nets only reach 17’ down. And lastly why don’t the king numbers going past the counter sky rocket every year when the setnet fleet is unjustly pulled from the water? The reason is because the commercial industry has a statistically insignificant impact on the king return.

    P.S. I do agree that draggers being allowed to dump dead king by-catch is despicable. And I agree that over exploitation of fish stocks makes it incredibly hard for them to recover. I just ask that people take a long look at what they’re doing to the fishery and examine the serious damage done by in river industry’s rather than point fingers at mythical black markets in the commercial fishery.

    • I may be in the minority but Mr Medred’s credibility when it comes to any objective writing on or about fish/fishing (especially when about the Kenai) is very badly skewed (by unnatural spooning with df&g) along with a serious lack of critical thinking on the subject.

  5. “Despite habitat that can only be described as pristine”? When was the last time you were on the Kenai River, Craig? In July hundreds, if not thousands, of dipnetters descend on the river from around the nation. Hordes of commercial fishing guides ply the water for kings, reds & silvers. If you want to try your luck along the bank of the river you had better bring your own rock to stand on as this is truly elbow to elbow combat fishing! From tidewater upriver past Sterling, lodges, fancy homes, fish camps and summer trailers dot the shoreline. Spawning beds are being trampled. Catch and release is killing untold numbers of breeding kings. A blind man with half an a##hole can see what has happened to the big kings, yet the Kenai River Sportfishing Association fails to see that they are a major part of the problem on the Kenai River.

    • “Spawning beds are being trampled” Really? All of those hordes of anglers must be giants in order to be able to trample spawning beds that are well offshore from the bank.

      Catch and release mortality (8.25%) for king salmon is accounted for in the sport harvest estimates for each season.

  6. Hmmmm, i thought this was a reasonable, well written article. Where are the kings? Craig did not blame any specific user group, (maybe too many pinks being released?). I did not find him blaming commfish “ 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.”. Bottom line: Chinook survival is in trouble and nobody knows why, worse yet, it seems nobody is figuring it out. This will be the third year in a row the Kenai has not made escapement, do we continue to sit on our hands and wonder why? Maybe all user groups should band together to find out what is happening, instead of blaming each other.

    • Hey Bruce, thank you, that was a thoughtful response. My complaint with Craig is that he cherry picks data and distorts the information to insinuate dramatic damage done by the set net fishery. Per fish and game data in river users have an exploitation rate around three times what the commercial fisherman have which he fails to mention. He also fails to mention how harmful catch and release can be on salmon once they enter the river and are preparing to spawn. From 2000-2018 the kings on the Kenai went from around a 30lb average to around 17lb average. During this same time period, per fish and games numbers, in river users harvested 300% more large kings than the commercial fleet. Immense pressure from targeting these large spawners over the past 20 years has had a significant impact on the current state of the run.

      • Eric.
        How about addressing the exploitation of Chinook that is not reported. When a drifter’s net brings up a dead King and it drops off only to sink to the bottom, it died because of being snagged in a net. But it is not reported. Why? Because every king reported by a commercial permit holder is another step towards the imposition of a restriction to their fishing. Line just another nail in their commercial fishing coffin. . And there truly are countless numbers that drop out of both set net and drift net fisheries. And don’t forget all those pictures we all saw of set net fishers holding up their very big Kings that went unreported and directly into their freezers or sold on the black market.
        The comm fisheries are not monitored for these types of mortality. The in river sports are monitored. King stamps are required. Guides are required to note numbers of fish hooked and kept. There are stream side checks by f&g and forms to be filled out annually by anglers.
        The damage to King abundance that has been done by the commercial fisheries in or near UCI is incalculable.
        When the trawl fisheries are allowed tens of thousands of protected species ( King Salmon) to be killed and discarded in favor of Pollock, damage of unknown degree occurs to the King stocks. When hundreds of millions of pinks are released by hatcheries more damage occurs. History has informed humans that when a fish species reaches the tipping point it is most often because of humans doing something harmful. Such as over harvest. Or mismanagement! Witness the PNW King wild stock populations that are forever gone, the Atlantic Cod, South American C sea Bass, crab species in Cook Inlet and Yakutat, Herring in PWS and other discreet stocks. Probably no harvestable surpluses ever again!
        So Erik, when you point fingers at Medred and the Anglers on the Kenai as the cause and fail to acknowledge the damage done by the commercial fleets, you lose all credibility.

      • Eric, I see that you edited your response to delete the catch-and-release mortality figure of 50%. That is good because the department applies a 8.25% mortality rate for C&R. Here is an excerpt from just one report:

        What is the catch-and-release mortality of early-run king salmon? This type of mortality was studied on the Kenai River during 1989-1991. Hooking mortality of early-run king salmon ranged from 12.1% for small males to 1.9% for large males. The hooking mortality rate for female early-run king salmon was 6.8%. As with most species, the most significant factor influencing mortality after hooking was hook placement and the occurrence of bleeding, with hooking in the gill or other vital areas causing most of the mortalities. Although all of the early-run fish in these studies were caught with unbaited lures, there was no difference in mortality rates of fish caught with bait, unbaited lure, or bait/lure combination during these same studies conducted on late-run Kenai River king salmon.

        Also, the 1998 – 2013 average percent harvest by the inriver sport fishery of late-run large king salmon is 74% (26% commercial) and the recent 2014 – 2019 average is 54% (46% commercial). During restrictive fishing seasons, the harvest is closer to 50-50 depending on how severe the sport restriction is. In 2014, the commercial harvest was 706 (71%) compared to the 293 (29%)sport harvest.

      • Eric,

        Understand your concerns about sportfishermen (guided and unguided) targeting kings on spawning beds. If that was a causative factor however we should see a much higher return rate on the “upper” river where no king fishing is allowed, to my knowledge the upper Kenai is suffering poor returns as well. I think many believe that the problem is occurring outside of Cook Inlet. In days of plenty (excess 100,000 king return) chinook kept returning in great numbers, (in spite of sport and commfish harvest.) If anybody is going to solve this mystery it must be us, if not us then who? If not now, then when?

    • I agre with you. Since 2012, nobody has any solid answers,I’ve heard ocean conditions many times. We need to solve this problem asap!!!

    • Bruce I’m not sure I’d agree with you’re assessment that sport fishing isn’t having an impact because kings spawning upstream are also struggling. If the scenario was reversed and sport anglers were only allowed upstream and the downstream spawning kings were also struggling than I would agree with your assessment. However, since those kings spawning upstream still have to pass through 28 miles? (sorry not sure on the exact number) of intense sport angler pressure they’re faced with the same pressure as the lower river main stem spawners. That’s sort of like saying the Yukon River kings spawning near Canada should be doing just fine because all the pressure on them is in the first 150 ish miles.

  7. Crazy Craig strikes again. You failed to mention that the large Kings headed for the Kenai amounted to 180 fish in the set net fleet for the entire year, which was far less than the in river commercial harvest from guides. Also you failed to mention that the only study on catch and release kings found that there was a 50% mortality rate. You wonder where the large kings went Craig? Start pointing some fingers at your puppet masters over at KRSA.

  8. Time to increase the exclusive economic zone boundary to 1000 miles and ban any foreign vessel fishing more than 1000 miles from their home port. Set bycatch limits and if you exceed them your done for a year! Address the winter king fishery. Get with the program with RAS Aquaculture.

  9. Hatchery fish destroy wild salmon runs. The fish are so inferior. The pinks to replace the destroyed Cooper River fishery have caused so much harm!!

  10. As long as you have a “fill your freezer mentality here” which is no place else in North America, fostered by the nutty urban subsistence dip net etc. It is good by Mr.Salmon, and all the other fisheries too which breed a non-sporting and rape the resource mind-set. This mentality is on EVERY river and stream all the way to the headwaters.

    • The fill the freezer mentality might be bad, Dottie; but dipnet and sport harvests are in most fisheries insignificant when compared to the size of the commercial harvests. These industrial harvests have always been non-sporting and though they once were engaged in raping the resource, they are now well regulated.
      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make.

  11. Silver fishing mouth of Resurrection Bay midweek. Some silvers caught. A few rockfish. But lots and lots of pinks, mostly shallow (surface – 20′). I don’t think its Cook Inlet oil and natural gas. I think it is an overabundance of pinks. Time for onshore / offshore fish farming in Alaska and let the natural runs of salmon recover. Cheers –

  12. The Alaskan Chinook Salmon needs to be placed on the endangered species list immediately & federal protections need to come to the Cook Inlet.
    Then the feds could examine the damage done from Oil & Gas production…including drilling, fracking, discharges, leaky pipelines & other hazards which are contamination the Biosphere.
    There has not been an open Chinook fishery in the Mat/Su borough in nearly a decade.
    I am thoroughly disgusted with the lack of urgency from state officials & current administration…these were ALL once world class fisheries that attracted tourists from around the globe & fed a large amount of locals.

    • Steve,

      You realize, of course, that an endangered species is a species in danger of extinction, right? You realize, of course, that king salmon are spread far and wide all over the state, right? You realize, of course, that oil and gas production is done only in Cook Inlet and on the North Slope, right? Do you really think that all king salmon across this vast state with pristine waters that are the envy of the world are in danger of extinction based solely upon the limited oil production in Cook Inlet?

      • Steve o , you have a very good point on your pretense. Problems arise when it’s confronted with reality. History has allowed many animals not truly in danger of extinction to be classified as endangered and thus get attention and additional help. ( no one rational can deny the kings need help) ( your technical use of term is correct but useless because usually if an animal is threatened with extinction its already possible to late ) as to oil and gas production you are correct in pretense but there is no guarantee you are correct with regards to knowing what is effecting the kings . No king run on slope . A totally screwed king run in Cook Inlet where we have marginal yet long term oil and gas production. At best it may or may not be adding to the innumerable stressors on king stocks. No one yet knows the precise reasons our king stocks are struggling. So to hard and fast rule out compounding possibilities at this point without adequate studies is fools play , even when its probable . We need more accurate knowledge. ( in depth studies 😉)
        in short via using brain addled democratic fact checkers lousy methods-I label your comment mostly false and deniable.

  13. See impact of annual release of a billion hungry hatchery pinks annually. Two of world’s largest pink salmon hatcheries are in PWS. The boogie man in the pool both figuratively and genetically. How can it not have a profound impact of other salmon species?

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