An Outdoor View: Saving the kings

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past several years, you’ve heard that the so-called early run of Kenai River king salmon is in trouble.

Any threat to these fish is a big thing for many Alaskans. These are the first salmon of the year. In mid-winter, they’re the fish we dream about. After months of eating frozen fish, they’re a taste of spring. They’re the fish we celebrate by sharing them with friends. They’re a reminder of why we live in Alaska.

Sad to say, the last early-run king that I brought home is a fading memory. I haven’t fished for them in years, and didn’t fish for them again this year. Although the Department of Fish and Game claims that more returned this year, the number that returned remains well below what I consider healthy. If it were up to me, I would’ve closed the Kenai to all king salmon fishing until the runs are large enough to provide a sizable harvestable surplus.

Unfortunately, Fish and Game doesn’t see it my way. In a June 3 news release, Robert Begich, the Area Management Biologist for Soldotna said, “We’re seeing stronger numbers of early-run kings returning to the Kenai. This has allowed us to ease pre-season restrictions, and provide opportunity for anglers to fish for early-run king salmon.”

Instead of erring on the side of conservation, ADF&G chose to provide “opportunity.” Some 18 miles of the lower Kenai were opened to harvest, and the entire lower 50 miles, including miles of spawning area, were opened to catch-and-release fishing from June 4 through June 30. I didn’t like this decision, and I wasn’t the only one. In mid-May, a poll in the Clarion poll asked, “Do you agree with Fish and Game’s decision to allow catch-and-release fishing for early run king salmon?” A total of 224 readers responded. Only 40 answered, “Yes.” The other 184 answered “No.”

To make matters worse, on June 24, ADF&G opened the entire lower 50 miles of the Kenai to king salmon fishing for all of July, albeit with a few restrictions. As a result, the part of the early run that spawns in the main-stem Kenai, as well as the fish that stage in the Kenai before running up the Killey and Funny rivers to spawn, are subject to harvest and harassment during the last, vulnerable days of their lives.

I, along with many others, want to be able to continue to harvest some of the early-run kings, but for that to happen, some changes are in order. The best idea I’ve seen to date is in a proposal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries by the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition.

Quoting from the proposal:

“On the Kenai Peninsula for many decades fishing for chinook salmon has only been allowed in the lower reaches of most streams open to fishing for chinook salmon. The Kenai River is the one exception to that protective management practice. In the Kenai River fishing for chinook salmon is open for fifty river miles. This area includes major spawning areas for both early run and late run fish. While there are closed areas around stream mouths to protect some components of early run fish those protected areas do not protect mainstem spawners. We propose limiting fishing for chinook salmon to downstream from 300 yards below Slikok Creek.”

Not many years ago, the idea of limiting fishing for king salmon to the lower 19 miles of the Kenai would’ve seemed outrageous, but not now.

The proposal continues, “History seems pretty clear that factors such as population growth, increased use, commercialization and development make it almost impossible for us to sustain indigenous wild Chinook salmon populations. Unless we alter our behavior we will join the long list of streams dependent on hatchery-produced fish. We will not be able to sustain the high-density sport fishery that has developed on the Kenai River unless we consider a more conservative approach of protecting production to secure future run strength sustainability.”

I think this proposal has merit, as do many other people, including some fisheries biologists. You’ll find it and others in the 2016-2017 Proposal Book on the Alaska Board of Fisheries website. Starting in August 2016, you can comment on proposals, either in writing, at a public hearing in Soldotna on Oct. 18, 2016, or at the Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage early next year. It’s time for those of us who care about early-run Kenai River king salmon to stand up and be counted.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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