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