The bogeyman

Salmon crowding the spawning grounds/USFWS photo

The Kenai River return of sockeye salmon, which might have exceeded spawning needs last year, will almost certainly exceed the desired escapement this year.

Cue the “over-escapement” ranting.

And credit the commercial fishermen who fish set gillnets along the east side of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for creating this problem.

For decades, they fought efforts to try to find a way to fish east-side set gillnets in a way that maximized the catch of sockeye and minimized the bycatch of Chinook – the official state fish, the biggest of the salmon Alaskans call king.

In a classic mixed-stock fishery such as occurs around the mouth of the Kenai, it was inevitable the day was going to come when bycatch of the weakest stock was going to become a major conservation problem forcing a shutdown of fishing for a strong stock.

Not only did east-side setnetters fail to recognize this and prepare for the worst,  they for years insisted Chinook weren’t bycatch because, well, they wanted to be able to catch and sell the big fish, too.

“Legal, historic harvest is not bycatch,” one of their mouthpieces and chief enabler, Andrew Jensen, then the managing editor of the Kenai’s Peninsula Clarion newspaper, editorialized in 2013.

Jensen jumped through all sorts of hoops to try to explain away the fundamental definition of bycatch, which is simply defined as “unwanted catch” by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Many, if not most, setnetters for years claimed the Chinook they were killing were unwanted catch – “hey, we’re not trying to catch them; they just keep getting tangles in our nets” – while making little effort to figure out how not to catch the big fish.

There were exceptions. Gary Hollier worked with research scientist David Welch from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada to devise a plan for fishing shallower gillnets that would catch plenty of sockeye but let kings pass safely beneath. 

For his efforts, Hollier was ostracized by his set net colleagues. Andy Hall, who made his living as the publisher of Alaska Magazine and now as the executive director of the Alaska Geographic Association, accused those trying to protect kings of being greedy.

Limits on king harvests were, in his view, nothing but a scheme to put more of the big fish in the Kenai River for anglers.

‘That’s not conservation. It’s greed,” he wrote in a commentary in the Anchorage Daily News. “…A small group of well-financed, dishonest people want all the fish. It has taken the joy out of fishing and replaced it with fear for the future of this valuable, rich and colorful (setnet) fishery.”

The essay was full of misinformation, including this zinger:

“…Sport fishermen have continually selectively fished for the large, trophy kings, foregoing the smaller jacks. Size is a heritable trait in king salmon, and the removal of generation after generation of the large fish by the guided sport fishery has had a detrimental impact on Kenai River early-run king salmon both in run strength and individual fish size. The ESSN fishery, with nets designed to catch sockeye weighing 4 to 10 pounds, also catch kings of the same size, giving the big Kenai kings that make it to the spawning grounds a greater impact on the population’s gene pool.”

Size-selectivity is a much-debated subject in fisheries research, and suffice to say that if it were as simple as Hall portrayed it, sockeye runs would now be overwhelmingly dominated by under 4-pound fish able to swim through the aforementioned nets that have been filtering returns to Alaska rivers for 100 years.

When you blame everyone else for your problems in this way, it’s hard if not impossible to look at what you need to change to function in the future. And thus we have arrived in the situation we are in today.


Because there was no documented way to intercept an incoming flood of Kenai sockeye without preying on a struggling stock of Chinook, Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in late July shut down the east-side set net fisheries in a move later backed up by the Board of Fisheries.

The move appears to have been a good one. Seven of the 10 largest daily returns of Chinook into the Kenai have come since the nets were shut down.

The king run is almost certainly going to finish the year again under its minimum spawning goal, but it will be a lot closer than it would have been without the closure.

The bad news/good news is that the river is stuffed with sockeye. More than 1.6 million had passed the sonar counter as of Saturday. The upper bound of the sustainable escapement goal is 1.3 million, the upper limit of the biological escapement, 1.2 million.

The latter applies to the sockeye that escape the in-river rod and reel fisheries as well as the marine commercial fisheries. Anglers have in their best years caught 400,000 or so sockeye.

At that sort of harvest level, the river is likely a hair over the upper bound of the biological escapement goal already and certain to exceed it. This is what commercial fishermen almost universally lament as “over-escapement.”

Whether over-escapement is a good thing or a bad thing is for those who fish to individually decide. Give that a river plugged with sockeye makes sockeye easier to catch, some anglers might well be happy about the situation.

Commercial fishermen who count their sockeye in dollars, however, have legitimate reasons to be angry about all the potential revenue that disappeared up the river, and the possibility that more revenue could be lost in the future.

The science behind fishery management generally points to a reduction in “yield” when the number of salmon spawning in a river or stream exceeds a calculated optimum number.

This is, however, a general outcome not a given outcome.

As the newest escapement goal analysis from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported in 2020, “the  largest run and escapement occurred in 1987, and the largest return was from the 1987 brood year.”

The 2.25 million sockeye that escaped into the Kenai that year produced a return of nearly 10.4 million progeny. Unfortunately, such big returns off big escapements cannot be counted upon.

“(The) total run since 1975 has varied greatly, from just under 500,000 in 1975 to nearly 9,400,000 in 1987,” according to the state study. “Based on these estimates, Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon averaged 4.4 return-per-spawner, with return-per-spawner greater than 10.0 for the 1982, 1983 and 2000 brood years.”

A return of 10 fish per spawner is the dream of commercial fishermen. The 1982 and ’83 escapements that produced this were between 800,000 and 900,000 fish. The 2000 return was just over 900,000.

But the data here is not particularly good. There is no accounting for ocean survival, which can greatly influence productivity, and the actual counts for sockeye returns prior to 2008 are estimates of earlier numbers from an under-counting sonar.

A 2011 state study concluded the sonar that had been used in the river since the end of the 1970s was badly inaccurate.  It counted only 1.6 million sockeye in 1987, but that was apportioned upward to the 2.25 million in the wake of the study. 

Suffice to say, that calculating escapement goals for producing salmon at “maximum sustained yield” is a difficult task relying on less than perfect science.

Still, all scientists agree that there is a point at which allowing too many fish into a river decreases yield due to competition for spawning sites or for food between young fish.

Generally, sockeye returns per spawner on the Kenai go up as the size of escapements go down, but the “yield” issue isn’t that simple because smaller escapements up to a point yield smaller returns even if the return per spawner is greater.

The 2020 escapement study concluded the 90 percent confidence level for maximizing future runs would be found somewhere between 750,000 sockeye and 1.74 million, which is a massive range.

The study also concluded there was “uncertainty” in such a high goal, which lead to its reduction to 1.3 million.

“It is recognized, however, that a wide range of escapements appear sustainable for this stock and available data does not provide enough information to clearly discern a best estimate…,” the fishery biologists who compiled the report wrote.

Previous researchers, they added, have “pointed out the lack of information associated with large escapements as a serious technical issue with analysis of spawner-recruit data for the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon.

“When no escapements fail to replace themselves, ability to estimate the production curve for a stock against background environmental ‘noise’ is problematic because little of the curve has been observed. This serious technical concern coupled with the spawner-recruit data precision
and bias issues mentioned earlier in this report can lead to technical misinformation and problems if ignored.”

Maybe, if nothing else, fishery managers will get that data this year.





Categories: Commentary, News, Outdoors

19 replies »

  1. Craig, any way you can find data on how often the Kasilof reds have been “overescaped”? It sure seems like it has happened a lot recently. You think it would crash with all the overescapement (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

  2. Anyone else noticed that the King counts on the Kenai have spiked remarkedly since the east side set netters were shut down? Latest count finally jumps ahead of last year’s (poor) pace.

  3. “…setnetters for years claimed the Chinook they were killing were unwanted catch – “hey, we’re not trying to catch them; they just keep getting tangle[d] in our nets”

    Unwanted catch? Huh?

    Achieving the minimum (if not higher) king escapement goals (early and late run) in the Kenai River shall remain the standard above all others. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 9,248 [As of 8/8/2021] large kings have passed the sonar on the Kenai River since July 1, significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 large kings. If more reds make it up river so we can get more escapement of chinook, so be it.

    The Kenai River needs every one of its kings that can make it up the river if it has not met the 15,000 late run kings (the lower end of the Optimal Escapement Goal).

  4. Good points Frank. I have seen wheels operated on many occasions. Never operated one, however. Fish wheels were approved for chums on the Yukon provided they were staffed during operation. Kings were required to be funneled into a live box and released alive. It seemed to work.
    Properly staffed cooperative owned wheels could work on the Kenai River banks. . An ESSN cooperative owned trap would of course work better. Neither will happen. Not under limited entry and because they are both treated the same because of how similar they would be to what was prohibited when Alaska became a State.
    And you could never get a handful of ESSN permit holders to even agree to kill a rat in a tub, much less agree to individual shares in a cooperative.

    • Maybe most of us are thinking about fish wheels the way they once were. How about a multi piece portable system that includes on site processing and refrigeration? Handling the fish once instead of 4-5 times. Think about the marketing possibilities. And imagine the opportunities one could search out to financially support such and enterprise. Unlimited.

      • Bob,
        You have good thoughts but unfortunately nothing is sensible in this economy….the oil cartel (who controls government) makes more money off the selling of diesel to the commercial fishing fleet than the fishermen make in profit these days. The ocean ranching system fed by hatcheries is all by design & not helping our problem of declining natural runs or the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

  5. A buy out of the ESSN fishers’ permits or at least of at least one half of them ( especially in areas where Chinook gather prior to entering the spawning waters in UCI ) would very likely get the returns back. But it would take a few years.
    Sure, there will be claims of the dreaded “over escapement”. But at no time has this ever been a biological concern. No body knows the capacity of the Kenai River to handle large escapements. We do know that except for one outlier year where untimely floods and rains occurred that Sockeye have always been able to replace themselves at a greater than 1 for 1. And in that year the runs were damaged by the floods and rain that took out the spawning areas.
    “Over escapement” is a term coined by the commercial
    Fleet in order to convince the Dept and Board of Fisheries to allow more commercial harvest. It is an attempt to do an end run around Alaska’s constitution which requires the fisheries resource to be managed on the principal “sustained yield”. Not “ Maximum sustained yield”.MSY is a number used by commercial fisheries where there are insignificant competing interests for the fish. Our constitution mandates that the resource be managed for all the people in the State. Not just for the commercial fleets.
    The claim that if the ESSN is eliminated or significantly reduced that there will not be enough fishing power is another attempt to bootstrap the false notion that over escapement will occur. Escapement goals on the Kenai are dollar driven and not biological concern driven. Lots of escapement benefits the eco system in many ways and allows hundreds of thousands resident Anglers and dip net fishers to put food in their freezers instead of having to buy it.
    By allowing more Alaskans opportunity, and giving the drift fleet additional fishing time away from the beaches plenty of Sockeye will be killed. If nothing else the Dept could simply increase the goals. After all they were really based on the concept of giving more economic opportunity for the commercial Fisheries. Not because of a biological concern.
    And today is different than 40 years ago. The economic benefit to the area and region is simply greater when the emphasis is on sport, guided sport, and dip netting. It’s time to recognize that change and capitalize in it.

    • a cursory examination of the original commercial fisheries entry commission (CFEC) legislation would reveal the creators anticipated situations where the resource would NOT support the number of permits created; therefor they installed wording to deal with that situation in effect creating a savings account (composed of a tax on landings) that could be used to remove permits from the fishery. lately Senator Micciche is re-inventing this wheel intent upon using government monies to purchase the permits. when questioned with why the original CFEC plan could not be used he did not address the issue…… over-escapement is nothing but a sham created as a distraction for the department to further obfuscate. this guy, a professor from UW, name of Ricker created a backwards looking model that used hindsight to estimate returns from prior year escapements. designed to manage large number returns like sockeye, pink, etc. salmon when applied to Chinooks the whole thing goes astray but some biologists insist it is a good tool and refuse to divert from such thinking…….. in the early years the sockeye count on the Kenai was done by using a Bendix sonar system (essentially a tally wacker), (they still use this system on the Kasilof) but the realization of the economic and social value of the Chinook salmon brought on the more sophisticated sonars, which learning curve has almost everyone confused about the accuracy, so now when we conceivably have an accurate counter???….. it is all about biometrics these days, field biologists are a thing of the past, the decisions are made with complicated algorithms few can understand requiring trust from a department that has shown themselves to not be ‘responsible’

  6. Craig, please list the reports that state the early Bendix counters were under counting the sockeye in the Kenai and I’m assuming the Kasilof Rivers. I’m very curious to read how they determined this. Thanks Ken Florey.

  7. Common sense would dictate that a cooperative venture between several prime set net sites to set up a new age fish wheel should be in the works. Unfortunately common sense seems to be in short supply.

    • Great idea Bob ! Separate the species and only use a catch system that acquires the targeted species. Great information in this article!

    • Common sense would also dictate another solution to the problem of a mixed-species fishery, that of either onshore (RAS) or offshore fish farming for reds. Had commfish spent a little of the effort they have spent on fighting the other user groups for their share of a static pie, they could have GROWN that pie. Solution is out there. Commfish won’t even consider it. Cheers –

    • Bob, we do not have to reinvent the “wheel”, no pun intended. Just bring back the fish trap! that is what you are suggesting anyways.

    • Nice concept but in theory only. With the UCI tides and number/ location of set net sites it simply would not work. Fish wheels strategically placed at the mouth of the river, however, would definitely work. I seem to recall they were done away with at statehood. And never to return!

      • Nothing new about this, been suggested for at least the last 45 years ever since the first management plan to maximize the harvest of sockeye while minimizing the catch of kings. Problem is it a bit too much on the pink side of politics. IIRC fish traps were outlawed in the State Constitution. Shallow nets have also been suggested, 29 mesh nets would reduce to by catch of kings for sure. It was never proposed as a regulation that I can remember.

      • Alaskan, have you used fish wheels?. Do you the mortality rate of non-target fish caught in a fish wheel? It is quite high, that is why capture/recaptures wheels used by the department are made to be fish friendly( costly to make) and are maned at all-time the wheel is running. So the non-target caught fish never go into a fish box.
        Fish traps would work. Fishermen would join together, in different groups and maintain a trap site, splitting profits, costs, and man hours efforts.

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